Between shooting mornings and evenings, traveling between locations, trying to find the best places for images and staying where the internet connection was non-existent, I had little time for a day-by-day diary. But, I can transcribe notes sloppily written by bouncing around on back roads, detailing every ranch, butte and hoodoo. What follows is what I deciphered from my scrawl, deducted from our images and retained in my memory.
Update: Day 7 * September 26, 2010 * Sunday:
Leaving in the dark, we quickly found our way back to Sunset Point to shoot the sunrise and resulting aura among the hoodoos. As the sun began to lighten the sky, the hoodoos seemed to lighten from within, blushing with the incandescence of a lit candle. A busload of Japanese tourists began to make their way to my spot, so it was time to hit the trail that switchbacked its way along the hoodoos below my position on the left side of the fenced viewing area. I had already determined that the light was too harsh toward the right looking toward Inspiration Point so I began my descent.
I had noticed that other photographers had already begun the descent into the Amphitheater, so I grabbed my gear to follow. The light remained so I made my way to an area wide enough to set up a tripod without tripping others who were sure to follow. I continued this pattern of finding a suitable spot to perch then scanning the hoodoos becoming closer and closer during my descent. Soon, the cool morning began to warm considerably and the tour buses dutifully sent their occupants to hike the trails. I made my way to the top to find my husband, stopping on the uphill return to see if there was a composition I had missed.
The map we received at the park entrance showed many other overlooks and trails so we meandered south along SR63 to the turn off for 3 viewpoints: Inspiration Point, Bryce Point, and Pariah View. Inspiration Point’s view was looking back at Sunset Point. In the late afternoon, that same luminescence would be on the backsides of the spires we shot yesterday from Sunset Point. Bryce Point didn’t have the concentration of hoodoos. Those that were visible were often competing with the pinion pines. Pariah View at 8176′ had a different vantage point. Around the corner from the previous viewpoints, its geology is both at eye-level and so deep that the bottom wasn’t visible from the fenced viewing area. The best part though was that tour buses and RVs were not allowed. This image was shot around noon, usually not advisable but when the glow is on…
Rainbow Point is one of two viewpoints at the terminus of the scenic drive. It offered a 100 mile vista. On our return we stopped at several more viewpoints including Agua Canyon then the Natural Bridge. A natural bridge is created by water action, usually a stream that erodes the softer sandstone. The more common arch is formed from a wall by the forces of wind and water. Bryce is a riot of sherbets: orange, pink, yellow, and other confectionary colors. Many arches or bridges require a hike; this one at Bryce requires stepping a few paces from your car.
Our next destination was Kodachrome Basin State Park where our lodging for the evening was at the Red Stone Cabins located within the park boundaries. What prompted me to reserve a cabin within the park was not only its location but the view from our small deck of red walls and sand pipes. Our cabin had a mini-fridge, microwave and a comfortable queen bed for $80.07. The price also included our park admission for the evening and morning we explored the park.
In Cannonville, a very small town along SR12, Cottonwood Canyon Road will lead you off the state highway to Kodachrome Basin State Park and the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. This road is paved until the turnoff to the state park when it became a dirt road traversing the monument for 48 miles until it meets US Highway 89. That adventure awaited us tomorrow.
One of the more prominent sand pipes was just a few steps away from our cabin enabling us to catch the light that the setting sun was casting on the chimney and the red sandstone formation that supports it. A few clouds to catch some color would have been a vast improvement but clear blue skies have been our constant companion. Also, my fear of snakes prevented me from finding a closer view to isolate the lone tree standing next to the star attraction. We finished the day enjoying popcorn and hot chocolate on the porch while watching the many stars in some of the least polluted skies in the United States.
Update: Day 8 * September 27, 2010 * Monday:
Our attempts to shoot the same formation was a wash as the rising sun was coming at the wrong angle. Also, had we explored more thoroughly, we would have discovered that the road to Chimney Rock, the largest formation in the park, was a better vantage point for a morning exposure, a reverse of last evening. I would like to return here to further explore the trails as few people visit this park. For a $5 entrance fee, it provides solitude and interesting landscapes.
We left Kodachrome Basin for Cottonwood Canyon Road which was a dirt road under best conditions, a muddy morass after a rain. Those sunny days, a bane for photography, was a boon for traveling on these back roads that lead to many interesting rock formations including our next stop. Grosvenor Arch, a rare double arch is reached by a mile drive on another dirt road where you can walk up a paved path to stand underneath this very tall structure. The light was from the east but by arriving there at 10:30am, we missed the best light.
We encountered a few people along this backcountry scenic byway: a park ranger, a Swiss bicyclist with an inadequate water supply, an Oregon couple who were camping nearby, and a truck carrying two locals who went further along the side road. We wanted to travel further to explore several features such as the colorful rock formations that the rangers call “Candyland” but the road deteriorated further after the cutoff to the arch so we returned to SR12. Road conditions are often subjective but this road offered a challenge to our Ford Escape SUV: deep ruts, a deep wash with water, and washboards. For the 25 mile round trip we invested about two hours.
We made our way to Upper Blues Overlook where we stopped for the view over the Kaiparowits Plateau and a lunch break. The Kaiparowits Plateau was the last geographic area in the continental United States from 1871 t0 1874 by John Wesley Powell and Almon Thompson. SR12 follows Powell’s route from here to Balancing Rock just to the south of Boulder.
Portions of SR12 are open range (cattle without fences) so it should have been no surprise to encounter a cattle drive on the way to Escalante. That there were vehicles stopped up ahead was a clue but several men on horseback galloping ahead accompanied by racing cattle dogs as if out of a chute made it plain that there were cows on the road ahead. They joined several other hands working the cattle who were in no hurry to move to the other side. It was a real treat to see part of the Old West in action as the intense men and animals knew exactly what to do.
Arriving in Escalante (variously pronounced as Es’ cuh’ lanny’ or Es’ cuh’ lant’ by the locals), we checked into our lodging for the next two nights at Escalante Outfitters. Our clean cabin had a comfortable queen bed, a nightstand and a front porch for $50.49 including tax. The shared restroom facility was a short walk away with separate facilities for men and women.
Hole in the Rock Road is part of the scenic back road byway system in the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. It is accessed by driving out of Escalante a few miles on SR12 then turning south on a two lane graded gravel road. The many plastic car parts strewn about are testimony to the excessive speed of those who caused the washboarding that occurred too frequently. The road made its way through the typical high desert dotted with rabbit brush, pinion pines, and grasses. Its route was mostly flat with a few curves and elevation changes as far as we went.
We drove about twelve miles to our destination for the evening: Devil’s Garden whose hoodoos are composed of tan and red strata. Clear blue skies and strong light do not great photos make. Also, it was difficult to isolate single hoodoos or groups due to the adjacent brush. Not being familiar with the area and arriving too late, we had to hurriedly scramble about trying different compositions but being happy with none. Interesting footnote: most of the people who signed the guest book were from Europe. Europeans love the Southwest perhaps more than us Americans because we saw them in tour buses, rented motorhomes and in rental cars , the sounds of foreign languages sometimes outnumbering English-speakers.
Update: Day 9 * September 28, 2010 * Tuesday:
Our National Geographic Trails Illustrated map showed a spur road off Hole in the Rock Road that lead to two arches: Cedar Wash Arch and Covered Wagon Arch. Bumping along in the dark, we found the very narrow sandy road but only found Covered Wagon Arch which was down in a wash obstructed by brush. Cedar Wash Arch could have been in several places but the trail wasn’t well marked where we assumed the trailhead was.
The ranger at the Escalante Information Center told us that Hole in the Rock Road came to halt before Dance Hall Rock due to a large flooded area. Plan B was to check out the Old Main Sheffield Road (aka Spencer Flat Road) a few miles down SR12 from the Hole in the Rock Road. This road sees fewer visitors than the other scenic back roads byways (and those have fewer travelers than the national or state parks). Curving around some amazing slickrock layered in cream and butter swirls by erosion and geologic upheaval, this drive was a rutted, rocky, roller coaster ride of a road. A butte that looked a whipped potato mound topped by a butter sauce had photographic possibilities but not with a cloudless sky.
Although we were on this road for most of the day, we netted few photographs that had any merit. This is an area I would enjoy returning to when the weather cooperates. There were cross-bedded checkerboard buttes, the buttered butte, chimney-like rock formations, tumbled boulders from cracked strata that would be great photographic subjects if there was more drama in the evening sky. After watching the sunset over a vast unpopulated area from an overlook, we returned to our cabin to prepare for an early start tomorrow for Boulder.
Update: Day 10 * September 29, 2010 * Wednesday:
Our plans were to hike the Lower Calf Creek Falls trail which is off SR12 between Escalante and Boulder, but we didn’t feel up to a 5.5 mile round trip hike in the heat. Yes, even at the end of September, Southern Utah was very warm. During the drive between the two small towns it became very evident why some people call this one of the most scenic roads in the United States. Switchbacks revealed more varied rock formations in an earth toned rainbow of colors. We passed through red-walled canyons along the Escalante River where cottonwoods thrived. And, we survived the “Hogback”, a short section of the highway which drops off precipitously on both sides without the security of guard rails.
We had decided against driving the Hell’s Backbone Road outside of Escalante as we explored the two back roads mentioned previously. However, as the drive was shorter than we thought, we had time to drive this road before driving into Boulder. This is a well-graded road adequate for two cars going in each direction, or as most people seem to be in a tremendous hurry to get somewhere out in the middle of nowhere, room to pass. Sometimes a challenge as it featured steep grades and and a few curves, it brought us past ranches tucked among verdant green fields. Finding nothing of interest to photograph, we back-tracked to Boulder, bought gas and groceries and headed for the Burr trail Road.
Boulder is a very isolated town of about two hundred people. It doesn’t have a tourist vibe like Torrey or even Escalante. The coffee house-art gallery-local hangout we stopped by to purchase sandwiches was informal and friendly like you find in unaffected small towns. Perched on a small bluff reached by a gravel road, the gas station featured a separate restroom housed in a wooden shed with old-fashioned fixtures.
The only paved scenic back road byway in the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, the Burr Trail Road took us through some of the most beautiful scenery on our journey. Long Canyon provides red-walled shade for seven miles between the open high desert parts of the road. Before arriving at the canyon, we passed through cream-colored swirled and cross-bedded slickrock via switchbacks and straightaways. After exiting the canyon, there is an expansive overlook of the badlands and cliffs ahead on the road as it heads toward the unpaved portion in Capitol Reef National Park.
Because of the hot wind rising from the badlands below, we sought the sheltering coolness of Long Canyon. The light in the early afternoon was lighting up one side of the canyon which bathed the opposite side in reflected light. One alcove had purple zebra-striped varnish streaking the entire interior from above which, had there been a lone twisted tree sharing the same real estate, would have been the iconic shot. In the image at right, this large deep alcove had less varnish but better positioned, more photogenic trees and gigantic chunky boulders that may have at one time been a component.
Slot canyons in the GSENM usually require a hike but Long Canyon has one a few steps from the road. However, we didn’t venture in because the light was flat inside. It is partially hidden by a large cottonwood and is more easily discovered coming from Boulder than from the Burr Trail Road Switchbacks.
We returned to our lodging for the night, Circle Cliffs Motel, operated by a family next to their home. The three-unit fifties-era cottage-style motel was clean and offered several personal touches like extra toothpaste and candies. Our one night stay was $60 cash.
Update: Day 11 * September 30, 2010 * Thursday:
Yesterday the Burr Trail Road had such interesting possibilities that we returned before moving northward to Torrey. Beyond the overlook, there are several pullouts to access the jackpot of image components of a perfect Southern Utah image: multi-hued badlands, chunky buttes and erosion-scoured red-wall cliffs. A long telephoto to isolate and compress the mounded badlands, a wide-angle to include all the elements, and any focal length in between can be used to capture the landscape. Unfortunately, the clear blue sky syndrome was present and any images we photographed were uninspiring.
Burr Trail Road had many photogenic rock formations as Long Canyon opened up but on a clear day, they were marred by harsh light and deep shadows.Retreating to within Long Canyon, we found several other red canyon wall-with-tree opportunities. Can you see the alcove’s own rock art of hooded figures in the image at right?
We were fortunate that few people traveled this road during our time in the canyon. There are many one-car pullouts on either side where you can look up at the canyon walls that soar at least 100 feet above you. The walls are close, admitting light only during the midday hours. But as one wall brightens with direct sunlight, the opposite wall glows with the reflected light.
Leaving Boulder and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument behind, we returned to SR12 on our way to Torrey, gateway to Capitol Reef National Park. We summited at 9800′ then wound down through 8% and 10% grades. Golden quaking aspens were fluttering excitingly in the wind. Cows were frequently encountered on the open range that is part of the Old West; RVs on the Grand Circle National Parks Tour seen more frequently are the New West.
SR12 encounters SR24, another scenic byway that we will drive through Capitol Reef and follow to its dead end at Interstate 70. Torrey is a tourist town offering many choices in lodging. We chose the Torrey Trading Post and Cabins recommended by a volunteer at the Visitors Bureau for our two night’s stay. Our brand new cabin was paneled in blue pine and was furnished with a queen bed, a mini-fridge, microwave, ceiling fan, and a small flat screen TV. Our bathroom was a separate facility (very clean, private ) which is why our cost per night was $35 plus tax.
After settling in and grabbing some very late lunch, we entered the park to find Panorama Point, a recommended spot for evening photographs. Just inside the park, this overview offered many choices for landscapes in all directions for late afternoon images. Chimney Rock is a prominent formation along along SR24. From Panorama Point, it was visible as part of a larger landscape featuring clouds as the sun began it’s descent into the surrounding canyons further south. Chimney Rock is the sculpted chocolate torte rock formation on the lower left side of this photo. A trailhead for a loop trail is located just off SR24 to explore its backside.
We only had to walk a short distance at the viewpoint to shoot the view toward the east and the park. Badlands, colorful sandstone cliffs, jumbles of tumbled boulders and other rock formations showed us a preview of what we would see when we drive through Capitol Reef early tomorrow morning. I believe the butte in the center right position in the photo is The Castle including the sculpted colorful badlands that form its base. This landmark icon of the park displays its short side in this view. We watched a beautiful sunset display dazzling colors amongst the forming clouds then drove back to our cabin in Torrey.
Update: Day 12 * October 1, 2010 * Friday:
From Panorama Point, we watched the sunrise over the park then prepared to shoot toward Chimney Rock this time bathed in the early morning light. It is always interesting to compare how the evening and morning light transform the geology of the Colorado Plateau. The cliffs behind Chimney Rock light up allowing the contrasting rock to be more visible as the badlands in the foreground begin to gather more light as the sun rises. After the light became flat, we returned to follow SR24 a few miles to the Scenic Drive and Visitor Center to check with the rangers’ report on the weather.
The Scenic Drive is a paved road until it becomes a dirt road to access Capitol Gorge. It passes through Fruita, a Mormon settlement that has been preserved including the orchards, barn and blacksmith shop. Capitol Gorge dead ends at the trailheads for the Pioneer Register and some tanks (water-filled sandstone holes caved by erosion). Just after entering the Capitol Gorge Drive past a wash, Tapestry Wall looms to the south displaying streaks of rich creams, pinks, golds and reds. It is advisable to check the weather forecast before venturing on either road due to the possibility of flash floods which we did earlier with the rangers.
Returning to our cabin, we did some laundry at the onsite laundry room in the same building as the restrooms. For $4.00, we washed and dried a large load in very modern front-loading machines. The proprietor told us that their prices were so reasonable, that a couple in an RV stayed in a cabin rather than at an RV campground that charged $50 a night. And, conveniently located across the road is Austin’s Chuckwagon which includes a grocery store that has a deli but a limited selection and expensive selection of food.
No rain was forecast for the afternoon, so we returned to the Scenic Drive to look for photographic possibilities on Grand Wash Road, another dirt road close to Fruita that featured walls of Swiss cheese. Swiss cheese, in geological terms, means that through the forces of erosion (wind and water), the weaker sandstone is carved out of the side or top of the rock resulting in holes that resemble the white cheese with cavities.
At the end of the road, I found this photogenic tree against the backdrop of this varnish-streaked sandstone wall. If I return to Capitol Reef National Park, I plan to reshoot this scene in late morning which may have improved reflected light from the opposite walls.
There were trails from the end of the road to the Narrows and to Cassidy Arch but we elected to return to Torrey hoping to catch some evening glow on the cliffs and The Castle. I wasted time not quite getting a photo that worked so we left to return to the cabin. Just after leaving from the Scenic Drive to return to SR24, I saw a photographer on the bridge that spans the Fremont River. He was shooting the glowing walls with the river winding its way into the canyon among several scenic and well-placed cottonwood trees. We quickly turned around as he was leaving to see if we could capture the scene. The light was fading fast so I only had time for a few frames. Next time I will shoot down near the river with a wide angle to include the river which reflected the walls and trees. This was a fine ending to our day.
Update: Day 13 * October 2, 2010 * Saturday:
Early this morning we made a few brief stops on the Scenic Road but the light wasn’t ready for us. When we were driving the Burr Trail Road, we turned around before we reach the unpaved portion and the very scenic Burr Trail Road Switchbacks. The Notom to Bullfrog Road completes a circle of the area by connecting with the Burr Trail Road just below the switchbacks. There were storm clouds threatening in the distance but the ten mile section from SR24 looked freshly paved. The sign said 34 miles to Burr Trail junction so since it was still early in the day, we turned south.
This is another road less traveled as we saw no other cars in over ten miles. We passed the usual assortment of ranches, a few vacation homes, and jumbles of boulders and chocolate mint torte layered cliffs. A 10% grade appeared without warning and down we went into Burro Wash where the road flattened out. A few miles from the drop is where we ran out of paved road. A well-graded but somewhat washboarded road was our path to Burr Trail so we decided to chance it. When we reached the part of the road that ran along the Sandy Benches, we were driving through the huge Sandy Ranch. The jagged silhouette of the Waterpocket Fold was visible to the west, a part of Capitol Reef National Park. Twenty-five miles in, the large raindrops began to splatter our windshield, so we decided to turn around rather than risk the chance of getting stuck.
As we drove along the Fremont River to Caineville along SR24, we noticed a few possibilities of fall colors but by that time the light was too harsh and the river threw off too many sparkling blown highlights. From the greenery of the river’s edge to the Caineville Badlands was a stark transition. The charcoal gray shale formations were a marked contrast to the colorful geology we left behind in Capitol Reef. Here and there peeked colorful rolling hills of badlands.
Because we were too early to check into our motel in Caineville and the two places that I had noted would offer food were closed, we drove on in to Hanksville to the Bull Mountain Market to stock up on groceries and to Blondie’s for a sub sandwich at the junction with SR 193 to Bullfrog and Hite, two towns on Lake Powell.
We backtracked to the Rodeway Inn, one of a handful of buildings in Caineville. Our room for the night was that of a typical motel with two queens, a microwave, mini-fridge coffee machine with coffee and TV for $74.38 including tax. The manager was very helpful and friendly. One night at the Rodeway was convenient to the Caineville Wash Road, a dirt road that circled a round as part of the Cathedral Valley Loop. After checking in, we began driving on this dirt road but the washboards were so bad that we turned around at a wide wash. I was really disappointed because this was to be one of the highlights of this trip. But if the rains came that were threatening, we would become stuck.
Earlier on the return drive from Hanksville, we found the turnoff to Factory Butte so we relocated it to shoot this massive butte in the evening. A small bluff’s shadow sheltered the rental car from the heat to await the sunset. I wanted to get closer but an earlier look had taken us to a deep wash which would have stranded us if the stormy clouds were to let go. For some added entertainment, we watched a local rancher using ATVs round up about twenty cows from the surrounding area for greener pastures at their ranch on SR24. I couldn’t imagine what they ate out here as it looked barren to me but the fields at the ranch were verdant and lush. We ended the evening watching the glow of the setting sun then returned to Caineville.
Update: Day 14 * October 3, 2010 * Sunday:
Factory Butte is grandly positioned, looming large and alone in the landscape to catch some light in the morning so we returned to a spot somewhat closer to the highway. It was so still and quiet as we watched the sun rise over the stark landscape where parts of “John Carter of Mars” were filmed last summer. The clouds in the west were carrying some heavy rain as evidenced by the swollen rain shadows as seen above the buttes in the image to the left. I was so busy watching Factory Butte for the sunlight to highlight its eastern flank that I almost missed this image of some cliffs to the south of it. Maybe next in human evolution, we will all have swivel heads with 360 degree views with constant input and review.
The light began to pink up the clouds dramatically while the sun skimmed along the top of this nameless butte. This is what you wait for, this is what scenic photography is all about for me. Sometimes the sky is dramatic, other times it is the physical part of the landscape, and sometimes you get it all. Better images could have been made by getting closer to the buttes but the great light was brief and sometimes you just get it while you can. This is the anomaly of photography in the Southwest: the thunderheads and rain shadows bring great lighting opportunities but the potential for a downpour to strand you on that rutted graveled road greatly improves.
Everything in the realm of the world of light was happening so fast that I again almost missed the dramatic rosy salmon-pink and gray skies over Factory Butte just barely beginning to light it up from the east. That the clouds finally made their appearance after being absent most of our trip was good news and bad news. Good news because now the dramatic skies would give our images a “mood”; bad news because we would now experience rain which would discourage any backroad forays, no matter how recently graded and graveled. The light show soon ended and we continued to shoot the billowing clouds hovering over each butte but it was soon evident that the best light was over.
Just before the sun peeks over the horizon, it will light up the highest subject, be it the clouds or the peak of a butte. Then, as the light begins to slide off the apex and slowly descend to the desert floor, it may highlight boulders or bushes or other foreground elements. And then, everything is lit and the glow is gone. This time the magic was everywhere it needed to be.
We drove back toward Caineville hoping to find some magic in the light that was showing through the clouds. We drove as far as the rest stop before entering Capitol Reef. We found a few pullouts where we could park without a wire fence to block your way along SR24 where you can wander back off the road. There is little traffic, mostly locals and the occasional RV whizzing by, to disrupt any photography. Some people will slow down, wonder what you are shooting, start snapping with their point and clicks then drive on. An oasis of trees and shrubs presented itself along the shoulder of SR24, a stark contrast to the shale buttes and badlands that are devoid of any greenery.
The only exception is in early April when numerous small blooms light up the desolation with purple, white and yellow blooms. Just imagine how these badlands would look all dressed up in spring colors. I can and I am returning next year. My contact in Caineville says she will keep me posted when the colors are just beginning to pop from the barren rocks. From a distance, there is no life on the rolling purple, maroon, lavender and gray hills.But, dried flower arrangements sprinkled the ground wherever I walked among the badlands after we parked along a side road. With some rain and the miracle of sprouting seeds, there will be a show and I will be there.
We stopped at Blondies for a sub sandwich which was across the street, before checking into the Whispering Sands for the next two nights. A typical arrangement greeted us when we opened the door to our room: two queens, a mini-fridge, microwave, TV. It was clean and on the ground floor for $77.82 including tax.
The skies were darkening but we wanted to check out Cowdung Road, one that the manager at Whispering Sands had recommended we drive about five miles away where the Mars Society and a dinosaur quarry were located. As we left, those skies let loose and huge raindrops hit our windshield. Cowdung Road was a compacted, graveled dirt road so we turned around and watched the lightening from our car on asphalt.
After the cloudburst eased up, we decided to head north on SR24 toward Goblin Valley State Park which is paved all the way. But, after checking the mileage (30 miles one way), we decided to stop at a pullout to look at the view toward Factory Butte. The skies were dramatic, the foreground of high desert scrub was bright and clean due to the recent rains but there was no light on the buttes in the midground. The drama of the skies can be seen in the image at the left which was shot looking south from the highway viewpoint. We returned to our room, glad we weren’t towing a huge boat all the way to Salt Lake City from Lake Powell as was most traffic this Sunday evening along SR24.
Update: Day 15 * October 4, 2010 * Monday:
Our itinerary today included a visit to Goblin Valley State Park reached by traveling north on SR24, going east on Temple Mountain Road then south on Goblin Valley Road. There is a four wheel drive road that goes directly to the park from SR24 but after the rains would be a foolish attempt. We stopped just a short distance above the fee station to shoot Wild Horse Butte, a very dominant formation in the park. While we were watching the eastern sky to gauge where the light would strike, the clouds above the butte began to transform into pink cotton candy. However the butte remained flat not “getting the glow on” until later.
We had quickly begun shooting when Tony yelled to look behind me: an angry sky painted with purples, yellows, lavenders, pinks, sky blues had allowed to sun to turn the slickrock below golden. I quickly loosened the pan knob on my bullhead, turned 180 degrees to begin shooting toward the east. What else could I do? When the glow is on, you shoot. Not knowing how long this would last, I remained in my spot where there was an unobstructed view of Wild Horse Butte. If I had ventured further, I could have caught the light hitting the slickrock below, dramatically sculptured, twisting itself inside out.
While that short but exhilarating sequence was waning, Wild Horse Butte began to glow intensely. How long could we continue to enjoy nature’s light show? We continued to photograph until the light became flat. The clouds remained in the frame but the cotton candy had changed to a muddy orange sherbet.
We paid our $7 at the fee station to a very personable ranger. He related how he had to move an eight foot gopher snake that was sunning itself at the intersection that would either lead to the goblins or to the camp ground. The rangers we met at the state and federal level are hard-working, knowledgable professionals who try to keep our parks safe and enjoyable. They have a wealth of information they would love to share. Just don’t ask them if there is a MacDonalds nearby.
Because the goblins were in harsh light now at mid-morning besides being surrounded by mud, we chose to shoot from the area above the goblin valley at the parking area. I walked out on a promontory where I had to be careful to avoid slipping on the muddy trail. This set of sculpted pillars were lit from the side, one of the “rules” of landscape photography, to provide some definition in rock formations especially, but I felt the light was too harsh and although the sky contained clouds, even billowing ones, and I liked the juxtaposition of the goblins-to-be, the photograph falls flat as the morning was too far advanced to yield any other light than harsh.
Photography is full of surprises and today was exceptionally rich. While scouting around, I noticed a dark cloud above a small colony of goblins that was casting shadows in a dramatic way: one bank of cliffs on the left is cloaked in black, and two mounds in the distance were darkened in a dramatic way, almost unnaturally so. They appear to have been very crudely selected then added in post-processing software to add balance to the composition. I can assure you that wasn’t done in this image or in any of my photography. I may clone out dust spots or a person who wandered into the side of a frame. But, I will never add something that wasn’t there when I took the photo.
The drama of the clouds and surreal lighting was a candidate for black and white conversion. To me, it is the barren starkness of this photograph that makes it a successful and dramatic black and white image. It was also photographed long past the magic hours before and after sunrise. But, to me it is successful because of the unusual lighting or shadowing caused by that magic cloud that made its own darks and lights in the middle background. This is an instance when the flat lighting actually adds a dimension: surrealism. And, it was shot from the parking lot. Color or B&W: which one do you prefer?
Wandering the road to Temple Mountain which continues on as a paved road until becoming another Utah backroad, we found another iconic alcove with trees image. However, a large boulder and the wall of the alcove had been defaced with graffiti. Whenever I decide to upgrade to Photoshop CS5 which features the content aware healing tool, I can magically erase the vandalism. Or await Photoshop CS6 which will upgrade to the vandalism removal tool. The pleasing pink sandstone was a nice counterpoint to the pine trees in front of the alcove in spite of the flat lighting. Because the road was in poor condition and there was still a threat of rain, we turned back to SR24.
Returning to Hanksville, we hit up Blondie’s for a sub sandwich and rested in our room. The rain showed signs of abating so we ventured forth to Goblin Valley. Back at the park, the wind increased violently, causing me to almost lose my lens cap to the goblins. A few visitors who ventured down into the valley returned with sticky muddy shoes. The rains returned heartily so we took the cue to exit and drove back to our motel. The soil along the road had nowhere to go except onto the road; sometimes you drive muddy backroads on the paved main roads.
Update: Day 16 * October 5, 2010 * Tuesday:
Hoping for the same gorgeous light that blessed us yesterday, we left before dawn to shoot Wild Horse Butte before sunrise. In the dark. The rain had again cause large rivulets of red sand to wash over the road. But, this morning, the rains stayed away. Once at the spot we had shot from yesterday, I scouted for a better place to catch the gleam on the slickrock without the desert scrub foreground while being able to shoot the butte with nothing between us. It wasn’t long before the glow of the sun hit the large red butte dominating the landscape. A hint of pink in the clouds helped but I should have been closer with a wider lens. At 78mm, I was just too long from my position. And, there may have been better foreground elements and more dominance of the pink clouds.
Even though I better positioned myself to shoot the badlands, the sky just wasn’t as dramatic as yesterday. And the lighting of the slickrock didn’t have the visual impact that the red rock butte did. We waited for some better clouds and a blue sky as the wind blew new compositions across the sky. Although the shapes and colors of the clouds were more interesting, the butte lost its red hot poker glow. If you compare the two images, you can see that it is truly “all about the light”. The first image was taken before the actual sunrise; the second photo was shot about 35 minutes later.
Returning to SR24, we continued northbound to intersect with Interstate 70 to proceed eastbound to Green River, our next stop. Always on the lookout for anything of interest, photographic or otherwise, we noticed a green oasis on either side of the road. Referring to our DeLorme Atlas and Gazetteer, we discovered that it was the Lower San Rafael River Wildlife Management Area. It provided a nice respite from the usual high desert scrub but no photographs.
Green River is slowly dying in the middle. When Interstate 70 replaced SR19, only the ends with the freeway on ramps have thrived: one end has large new gas stations catering to truckers, the other new chain motels. We elected to stay in the middle section at Robbers Roost, a motel reminiscent of those of the fifties found along US highways. Our night’s lodging offered a queen bed, mini-fridge, and microwave and free wifi for $43.49.
At the informative visitors bureau, we discovered the location of the local grocery store and a paved road to explore for photographs. Green River has been a boom and bust town, now in its bust phase. The intermittent engine pumping the economy was mining. Currently, the main economic activities preventing further decline are melons and tourism. Our next stop was at the Melon Vine Grocers, a local mom and pop store that was surprisingly well-stocked with well-priced goods. After purchasing turkey and cranberry croissant sandwiches, we found a small city park with picnic tables under very large trees to eat our lunch.
Exploring Hastings Road brought us to ranch land and a curious cemetery (Elgin Graveyard) that was partially submerged from all the rain of late. All that rain, however did nothing to produce the lovely bouquets of plastic flowers that seemed to sprout from every grave. Small, perfectly round melons and pumpkins dotted the fields that lined both sides of the road. The San Rafael River flowed lazily on one side of the road under the watchful towering Book Cliffs. Leaving the photography for tomorrow, we selected a promising overlook where a portion of the book Cliffs (longest continuous escarpment in the world at over 240 miles) might be reflected in the river. The pavement ended at a boat launch and picnic area where, following the San Rafael River, it continued unpaved into Gray Canyon ending at Rock Creek Ranch.
Update: Day 17 * October 6, 2010 * Wednesday:
The skies were filled with rainclouds and scattered blue patches so we left optimistically to check out our chosen spot from last evening. The large graveled overview provided lots of room to park and not tangle up our tripods. Last night, the river was somewhat placid and remained so despite the earlier rain. This morning there were a few ripples allowing a shimmering reflection. The clouds broke up to allow this image of the sun shining on the cracked upper layers of Book Cliffs reflected in the San Rafael River. Although we saw a few fish jumping, no fishermen were in sight except for a few birds skimming the surface.
We stopped at Melon Vine Grocers on the way out of Green River to stock up on groceries then headed for the San Rafael Reef via Interstate 70. You can see the “reef”, toothed serrated ridges, ahead going west. The interstate actually slices right through it, with its walls tightly closing in on both sides. It was almost like being eaten alive, metaphorically.
To get a lay of the land, we stopped at several viewpoints including Ghost Rock. From the westbound stop, you look north across this chasm rather than Ghost Rock. We exited at the Eagle Canyon overlook, stopping briefly to gaze into the chasm, then turned northwest onto the Moore Cutoff Road, a newly paved shortcut to Ferron saving us around 25 miles.
Again, we found that we were driving on a road where we saw more cows than traffic. Open range is still the rule of the road as evidenced by cattle guards, fences and cattle chutes and corrals along the rural backroads we frequented.
Badlands, sheer walled cliffs with slabs resting against their flanks, mesas and buttes in the distance, chunky slabs of boulders heaped around their parent and chocolate tortes were a familiar part of the landscape. We were actually looking for the Dry Wash Petroglyphs discovered during the paving of this road but found this lone tree backed up against the badlands.
The Moore Cutoff Road ends when it connects to SR10 via two branches, one of which heads north to Ferron, our next base for the night. The Moore Cutoff Road actually does pass through Moore which is populated mainly by a few abandoned outbuildings and small farms. Gillys Inn is a combination gas station, convenience store, coffee house, and motel with rooms and cabins. Our newly decorated room was roomy and the two queen beds were comfortable. With mini-fridge and microwave, the rate was $55.95 plus tax. The rumble of the double bellied coal transport trucks didn’t bother us at all as we were facing away from the main street in back of the store.
Update: Day 18 * October 7, 2010 * Tuesday:
While plotting our route to Panguitch, I discovered a route that was more in the slow lane but would bring us to the back door of Bryce Canyon National Park. SR10 would bring us to the I-70 junction where we would pick up SR72. At SR72’s terminus in Loa we would again drive Sr24 in a northwesterly direction. The turnoff to SR62 will redirect us to drive south, connect with SR22 and arrive at the gateway to Bryce.
But first we returned to reshoot the tree on the Moore Cutoff Road. The Dry Wash Petroglyphs we had been searching for were on the road we had parked on to shoot the tree. One short foray onto this “dry” wash almost stranded us as the recently graveled dirt surface belied its soft underbelly.
Those double -bellied coal haulers were out to get us. One chased us all the way down SR10 until it took the I-70 westbound on ramp. We escaped to SR72, a winding road that took us through Dixie National Forest, high desert scrub, valleys and open range land, a few stands of aspens and cottonwoods and pine forests. Excellently engineered with convenient pullouts and overviews, SR72 had little traffic. We summited at 8975′ in the fog that has been our intermittent companion.
SR24 westbound past Loa wasn’t as scenic as the eastbound section. However, we did enjoy the small settlements of red brick churches, wooden mercantiles, cafes and gas stations, the large ranches in Grass Valley, and the little traffic on this road and SR62.
Turning onto SR22 brought us past the southern end of Otter Creek Reservoir and along a row of large old cottonwood trees planted by long gone settlers as a windbreak. This often patched but paved road followed the East Fork of the Sevier (pronounced locally as “severe”)River as it meandered through the Black Canyon and Johns Valley spilling out onto red rock country when it encountered SR12 and the front door to Bryce. The almost ghost towns of Osiris and Widtsoe Junction and a mill or a water-powered building were testimony to earlier settlements along the river.
After our quiet drive from Ferron, Bryce was busy. But Bryce is beautiful, so our Senior Park Pass allowed us into this national park of whimsical rock formations of cream, brick, peach, plum and apricot. Afternoon was a choice time to be there to catch the glow of the hoodoos from several of the scenic viewpoints along SR63. Pariah View’s red rock formations were drenched with rain enhancing their color. Working our way back to the entrance, the skies loosened up pelting us with large raindrops and hail. Thunder and lightening were right on top of us at 8017′ elevation. Warnings are posted to not venture out to the overviews so we waited for the storm to pass in the parking lot.
Sunrise Point looks over the Amphitheater from a viewpoint just north of Sunset Point (8,000′ elevation). Looking out toward the Sinking Ship, the black cloud bank was receding toward the east, lightening and thunder flashing and booming accompanying its retreat. Not thrilled with the photo opportunities presented, I walked up to the lookout for a better view. From there, the hoodoos toward Sunset Point were glowing, enhanced by the recent rain. The badlands were especially bright, their folds like a velvet blanket. You can’t overdose on Bryce, so our next stop was Fairyland Point (7758′ elevation) but the light was too harsh.
Red Canyon, within Dixie National Forest on SR12, has redder rocks than Bryce, and is often passed by in a rush to arrive at its better-known neighbor. I walked along a trail that looped above the Visitors Center. In the afternoon, Pink Ledges Trail would offer some nice light but it is steep and I was tired. We followed US Highway 89 and the Sevier River north toward Panguitch.
Panguitch, Utah could be the next place for an artists colony. Its tidy renovated red brick homes dressed up with white ginger-breaded wood trim decorate a small town that is near the breathtaking scenery of Cedar Breaks, Bryce, Zion and other destinations in the Colorado Plateau. After we checked in at the Blue Pine Motel (clean, two queens, mini-fridge, microwave, coffee maker for $61.71) on Main Street (Highway 89), we drove around the town to admire the homes. There is a reason that so many homes are red brick: in lie of wages, the early settlers at the brick factory were paid in bricks.
Update: Day 19 * October 8, 2010 * Friday:
After scraping the frost from the car windows at 7:00 am, we left Panguitch on a southerly route toward Zion National Park. Along the Sevier River, the cottonwoods were beginning to turn yellow. We passed through Hatch and the space ship at Galaxy Cafe, herds of buffalo and cattle in Long Valley, fresh pine nuts for sale, Glendale, section of curves heading downhill, small stucco cottages, a lot filled with old cars for sale, Orderville and Cooter’s Cafe, two rock shops, Mount Carmel Junction, whoa, we almost missed our stop. Traffic was light but fast.
We turned west just before the Shell station onto SR9, designated as the Zion Park Scenic Byway. From the turnoff, Springdale was 28 miles and St. George was 67 miles away. SR9 suffered road damage from the upper hillsides pushing the road downhill. We passed by several ranches, a B&B, and 100 acres for sale. After about a half-hour we were in the park after presenting our Senior Pass at the fee station.
The familiar bulk of Checkerboard Mesa loomed ahead so very close to the road. And, above the viewpoint was the huge alcove that I saw during the week I photographed in Zion last January. Further along the road on the south side is a place to park at most three cars. On the opposite side of the road there is a small canyon that I explored last winter. This time it was partially filled with water from the recent rains rather than the ice of winter. Because the slickrock was steep and slippery along the sides, I ventured no further than the point of view of this photograph just before the water. B&W was my choice for this image as the light was flat as it was a shady area with no reflected light.
We were aware of the road construction on SR9. Averting the actual construction by arriving on a Friday, we still had to drive on the patchy and rough road beginning before the long tunnel. We were unable to park at either parking lot to scramble down to the slot canyon or climb the Canyon Overlook Trail due to the priority of construction vehicles. Along the very scenic switchbacks after the long tunnel, the conditions were very rough which slowed down the “Snap and Go” crowd. Once on the valley floor, the road was newly paved and a pleasure to drive.
Our next stop was at the Museum of Human History where I pointed out the spot to shoot the glow that creeps down the Towers of the Virgins before and during sunrise. Needing to stock up on groceries, we stopped at the new Sol Foods in Springdale.. The only grocery store in the gateway town to Zion has underground parking because of the expensive real estate. The groceries were expensive, too.
Sandwiches packed away in the cooler for a later picnic, we drove to Virgin and the beginning of the Kolob Terrace Road (aka Kolob Reservoir Road). We passed through gated communities and ranches but when we wandered into the boundaries of Zion, the road was red from the rock quarried to build it. Our picnic lunch was eaten at the Kolob Reservoir boat launch while the wind whipped across the blue lake eliminating any reflection of a grove of aspens on its shore. On the return to Virgin, the golden field that I thought so lovely last winter poking through the snow, was just as lovely without its blanket. It would make a lovely evening shot with colorful rock formations in the background.
In Rockville, there is an access to Smithsonian Butte Road across an old one lane iron bridge, a scenic backway where there are some excellent views of the Zion area during sunrise and sunset. Grafton, reached by a detour, is a ghost town from the days of the early Mormon pioneers. It was abandoned because the Virgin River (which carved its way through the red rock of Zion) frequently overran its banks. We walked along the dirt road but a fence kept out the curious. Grafton is now protected by the Grafton Heritage Partnership. Smithsonian Road was rutted but not impassable until we came to a steep hill. After the recent rain, it wouldn’t have been advisable to venture further. The red cliffs in the distance were colorful but lack of clouds spoiled the scene.
Our lodging for two nights was at the Dream Catcher Bed and Breakfast. We cut it short to one night as I forgot the payment was to be made in cash or personal check and we hadn’t allowed for that cash expense this far into the trip. Although I apologized profusely, we were treated poorly and left early the next morning. I do not like being summoned by a waggling finger to a discussion as if it I were in high school being brought before the dean of students. There were two rough towels in the shared bath but none in our room; how would we know which one to use? The last straw was the dirty pair of underwear on the toilet seat left by the man who shared our bath. $71 and some change was reasonable for a stay in Rockville, about eight miles from Zion, but the room was very small. The dog was the best part.
Update: Day 20 * October 9, 2010 * Saturday:
To shoot the Towers of the Virgin donning their sunrise glow, we left in the dark for the short drive from Rockville to behind the museum. This is a goosebump moment as the sun lights up the tips of the red peaks then slowly slides down their flanks into the meadow in back of the museum. Unfortunately, there were no storm clouds or any clouds for that matter to enhance the image. This was an experience to watch, not photograph that morning.
Parking our car at the Visitors Center, we hopped on the shuttle that wound its way along the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. From April until November, the shuttle is the only way to visit Zion Canyon unless you stay at the lodge. The drive is short but extremely scenic with inadequate parking for the almost 2.8 million annual visitors (2009 figure).
Our first stop was at Weeping Rock, the trailhead for Weeping Rock, Hidden Canyon and Observation Point trails. Zion has a wide assortment of trails for all fitness and comfort with heights zones. These trails seemed to be popular as every seven or eight minutes, the shuttle disgorged a half dozen visitors who began the climb. I wandered up the somewhat steep trail for the latter two, hoping to catch a better view of Weeping Rock. What I did find, however, were bright green-leafed trees clinging to the sheer, cracked sandstone walls, living on the water that seeps through the cracks. This water has been perking through the porous rock for ages, some seepages as old as four thousand years. Yes, I do pay attention to the drivers.
Our last stop was the Temple of Sinawava, which is also the end of the line for the shuttle as Zion Canyon begins to narrow at this point. The Virgin River has defined Zion Canyon over geologic time, flowing closely to The Pulpit, an example of its sculpting artistry. Having arrived at mid-morning, we were fortunate that this iconic pillar was catching the reflected light from the surrounding red rock walls of the Temple before the sun entered the canyon to cause harsh shadows and washed out colors.
In Art 101, one of the first concepts taught is the color wheel. The color wheel is divided into several groups: primary colors and complementary colors among others. Complementary colors are those opposite on the color wheel: red and green, yellow and purple, blue and orange, each color pair enhancing the other. This is the concept behind placing parsley next to red meat to intensify the red color. The red rock walls of The Pulpit and the Temple of Sinawava are enhanced by the green foliage of the surrounding trees. That said, I have seen beautiful images photographed in the fall when the leaves turn golden reflecting some of the buttery tones in the sandstone.
This stop is also the trailhead for the Riverside Walk which ends where the world-famous Virgin River Narrows begins. This two mile roundtrip walk is wheelchair accessible with slight elevation changes. Around a gentle curve, this oasis in a blind arch or alcove appeared beyond a tumble of large boulders. An excited child pointed out the small fish swimming amongst the reeds in the pool formed by the seepage from the peeling layers of the wall.
At the end of the Riverside Walk, many continue on to the Narrows where one can hike up the Virgin River if it is not too swift. You enter a world of glowing red walls reflecting in the water. However, the day we were there, the river was high and swift, confining a few folks to playing in the shallows.
Returning to the Visitors Center via the shuttle, we left the crowded park heading for the Dixie Palms Motel in St. George where I stayed several days last January. Our route followed SR9 through Rockville and Virgin then veered off toward LaVerkin to SR17 through Toquerville. Following Sr17 to its terminus at I-15, we turned south toward St. George paralleling the interstate. Soon, the sameness of malls and developments enveloped us and we were back to the veneer of civilization.
The Dixie Palms is an older small one-story brick motel on St. George Boulevard. It had all we needed: a queen bed, mini-fridge and microwave for $55.14 per night including tax. During the week it is half that. Smith’s Groceries is about five blocks away and the gleaming white Mormon Temple can be seen from the parking lot. We ate a light dinner and went to bed early to leave in the dark for Snow Canyon State Park.
Update: Day 21 * October 10, 2010 * Sunday:
Snow Canyon is too close to the sprawl of the gated communities in the St. George area to be a wilderness experience but it does contain some lovely real estate: sand dunes and petrified sand dunes, blind arches, lava caves, cinder cone, red rock, desert tortoises and gila monsters, water tanks, moqui marbles, and a slot canyon. After paying our $6 day use fee at the self-pay kiosk, we drove to the trailhead for the Petrified Sand Dunes.
The trail begins as an actual path then you make your own way along the cross-bedded checkerboards and swirls and layers of red slickrock. Last January, I explored this area several times, locating some lava rocks, moqui marbles and several twisted, stunted pines. By the time I climbed my way to the top of the highest swirl, the lighting from the east had turned somewhat harsh and the canyons to the west were beginning to wash out. Some of the pools that were dry last Winter were filled with water from the recent rains but were positioned poorly for reflections.
The friendly ranger at the fee station told us about some petroglyphs nearby on the backroads route we planned to allow us to skirt most of I-15 to Overton, Nevada, our final night in the U. S. Southwest. Driving through the prosperous and failed subdivisions of Ivins along Old U. S. Highway 91, we found the parking lot for the Tempi’ Po’ Op’ rock carvings. It was after a long, hot hike on a path with gentle switchbacks that I found the art on some rough black rocks: handprints, targets, spirals, and strange freeform figures that seemed to have been formed by a Dremel tool.
Returning to the old highway, we drove through the Shivwits Paiute Indian Reservation. Several ruins of Mormon farmhouses built of stone were scattered among the high desert scrub. After passing through the Beaver Dam Mountains Range, we dropped down to the plains below, entering the Arizona Strip, that part of the state that is connected by roads only to Utah and Nevada but not to Arizona. We also changed time zones as Arizona is on MST, unlike Utah which follows MDT. Later, in Nevada, our watches stayed on PDT and the clock in the car was now on time.
The Virgin River runs through Littleton, the first town we arrive at since Ivins in Utah. What was a blue-hued rapid river in Zion, is now a muddy lazy one, wandering through the fields and pink-brown sandstone canyons. Mesquite is a desert oasis of a city of over 16,000 people, mostly retirees who play golf, shop and gamble. It is newly built up with that stucco facade that looks like Henderson or Pahrump or any other faceless city in the desert.
Old U. S. Highway 91 disappeared into Interstate 15 which is now the major interstate from Las Vegas to Salt Lake City. 75mph for twenty miles goes quickly. Soon, we were on Nevada SR 169 for our last overnight in Overton where we will try to make up for the evening shoot we missed on Day One. Our lodging for the night was a repeat: The Plaza Motel, great budget motel furnished with a bedroom suite, a kitchen with regular sized fridge and stove, microwave, coffeemaker with coffee and dishes for $40 including tax.
Sunset was scheduled for 6:11pm but I had to call Southwest Airlines to confirm our reservation at 4:50 pm and receive our boarding order assignment. The staff at The Valley Of Fire State Park graciously allowed us to use their phone so we could save time by being in the park. A ranger also pointed out where the best colors in the sandstone could be found: between flash flood panels four and five (they are signed and numbered).
It was hot and parking along the road was prohibited. Official parking was about an 1/4 mile away from the prime spot so we hiked down and around the curve. Already filling in with shadows, the purples, lavenders, creams, pinks and soft orange sherbets ear the wash lost their color. I opted to shoot across the road where the sun was just finishing high-lighting some swirled multi-colored sandstone delights. After it dipped over the rock formations, we returned to Overton and dinner at Lins Grocery: sub sandwiches, yogurt and some fresh fruit.
In a flurry of energy, we repacked our luggage for the return flight home. The manager at the Plaza Motel told us he would give our cooler a good home so we filled it with the paper plates, paper towels and baggies we didn’t use. I recommend buying a cooler and picnic supplies to save money on food. Grocery stores just about everywhere have the basics such as yogurt, juice, fruit, milk and usually have pre-made sandwiches. Add ice and you are set.
Update: Day 22 * October 11, 2010 * Saturday:
Because the road to St. Thomas (a Mormon settlement uncovered by the receding Lake Mead which initially inundated it after Hoover Dam was built) was blocked due to either flooding across the road or the road construction on SR169 (Northshore Drive), we decided to drive directly to Las Vegas. If a side road looked inviting, we would it explore it further. It wasn’t yet 7:30 am and there was less than a hundred miles to drive.
Gypsum Wash Road is one of several dirt roads that lead to Lake Mead. We decided to see where it lead. A large red-tailed hawk flew with us above the deep wash on our east flank as we bounced along the washboards. Like giant molars, the gypsum cliffs lined the far side of the wide wash. Quiet and spare, with squat prickly pear here and there, the look was decidedly alien. And, the mid-morning light was too harsh. Only further on toward the lake did any green appear down in the wash below.
Taking Northshore Drive rather than I-15 to head east is an easy drive; the new construction is well engineered, supplying many viewpoints. Certainly not as straight but more scenic than the interstate, some of the most colorful badlands and tumbles of rock formations in the distance can be seen on both sides of the two lane drive.
Too soon Las Vegas arose like a mirage in the desert. We easily found our way to the McCarran Car Rental Center after eating brunch at the same Albertsons where we bought our first supplies. Leaving my purse in the rental car under the seat was the only calamity and a kind, resourceful and persevering employee of Dollar Rental saved the day. Our Southwest Airlines Flight to SeaTac and Bellaire Shuttle bus ride to Bellingham were anti-climactic. Yellow Taxi was our magic yellow carriage bringing us home before midnight.
In Southeastern Nevada and South Central Utah, we saw some of the most beautiful landscapes on this planet. And, the people who live and work in this Fantasyland were friendly and helpful. If I could, I would redo the entire trip. Since I can’t, this blog was the next best way to relive it.
If I could change anything, it would be the speed limits in both states. On straight two-lane highways, 60mph is an adequate speed. But 70mph is too fast. Everyone, tourists and locals, seemed to be in a hurry on even the scenic byways like SR9, SR14, SR18 and SR24.
Southern Utah has more national parks and monuments than any other state: Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Cedar Breaks, Grand Staircase Escalante and Zion are the big ones but there are several smaller, less well-known ones as well. It also has some spectacular state parks that are just as scenic: Goblin Valley, Kodachrome Basin, Snow Canyon among others. It is understandable that Utah would draw people worldwide. Busloads descend on Bryce and Zion, making photography very difficult.
Bryce and Zion are breathtaking beautiful but I prefer the parks that are less frequented and one that is not a park but in mostly BLM and private control is my favorite: the San Rafael Swell which straddles both sides of Interstate 70. Before the rains drenched the dirt backroads, we were only able to explore several areas. And, several of the roads in the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument were impassable at a certain point. So, I will return.
One of the ironies of the backroads is that because of their inaccessibility, few people except those with a high clearance 4X4, visit them. But, sometimes conditions are so poor, that they are impassable to everyone. This prevents these areas from being overrun but paved roads would let more people in on the secret. And, then the tour buses and RVs would inundate these special places and the magic would disappear.
A subject that few locals discuss but is paramount to the preservation of special areas for future generations, is the declaration of certain lands under federal jurisdiction as national monuments or wilderness study areas. Currently, the BLM is the federal agency that oversees the multiple uses including resource extraction, grazing, recreation and wilderness. If the area that is called the San Rafael Swell is declared a national monument, it becomes better protected and less subject to the invasion of cattle and machinery. Conversely, if allowed to continue as is, it may be less immune. But, being a national monument comes with its own risk: improvements such as visitor centers, paved roads and kiosks prepare the way for better access and more people. It has been said that we love our national parks to death.
Such historic treasures such as Long Canyon which has fifty miles of Native Art are near mineral extraction leases or private property where the rumble and dust of machinery and trucks may damage these national treasures. Perhaps the offer by the operator is the answer. The Bill Barrett Corporation has announced a five million dollar grant program to assist in protecting and studying this special cultural and historical art. If left as is with special concessions from private landowners, mining operators, the BLM and other interested parties, perhaps this area is best left as is. Intense tourism can ruin a scenic or historic area as well as ORVs or miners.
Burr Trail Road, Capitol Reef National Park and the Caineville Badlands are now on my “saved for later” list. There are many more photographs to be taken in these areas. And, I plan to be there to take them.
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.