I left my home in Denver, CO in search of a dynamic array of Southwestern U.S landscapes. This journey would end up taking me through the high peaks of the Rocky Mountains, into the Painted Desert of northern Arizona, across the rich, crimson rock from which central and southern Utah is forged, and into a homestretch of soft landscapes upon returning to my beautiful home state.
The first leg of my trip took me straight from the driveway to the San Juan mountains of Colorado, a place, sadly, I hadn’t visited before!
One of the first things that caught my eye on this sometimes paved/ sometimes not journey across America was the way that the rich soils of an agrarian farmland coexist, almost naturally, with the steep peaks of the Rocky Mountains. I saw this rustic ranch and could barely take my eyes off of the magical light created by the impending storms long enough to stay in my lane. I had to shoot it!
I got out of my car, threw a camera kit together and started capturing this barn from as many angles as I could imagine. I may have acted a bit prematurely, the owner of the ranch approached me, in a hurry I might say, to inform me that I had gotten a little too close to his pasture…without making any offense, I complimented him on his beautiful land and moved on. Thankfully, I was able to capture the beautiful symbiosis of his rustic barn, the glistening emerald pasture and the drama in the sky above.
Making my way into Silverton, the route was abound with stunning views of Ouray and unbelievable drop offs below. The Million Dollar Highway was, I’m sure, named for the rich mining country to which it leads, but it offers some petty valuable scenery as well.
Silverton was a challenge to me. My aim was to camp and hike to the legendary Ice Lakes, and specifically Island Lake, set up camp and shoot the beautiful basin at sunset, at night, and at sunrise. I’ve had this trail on my to-do list for a couple of years. Unfortunately, talks with locals and recent trip reports coerced me into aborting this hike. There was too much snow, avalanches had damaged the trail, and being alone and unfamiliar with the area, I decided to save that hike for perhaps later this summer.
I explored the Silverton area both in Sandy and on foot looking for an alternative plan. Nothing caught my eye. I even found a secret pond to shoot at sunset, at which time all the clouds dissipated…photographers will sometimes refer to being “Skunked” when a sunset fizzles or gets too overcast to create a decent looking sky for a photo.
Disappointed, I returned to a spot I’d seen on postcards, just outside of town, where a lonely ore bucket still hangs on a cable system leading to a local mine, decommissioned in 1991. I like the sense of rugged solitude portrayed in “General Without a War”, a reminder of the past importance of The Mayflower Mill, a National Historic Landmark.
Somewhat disappointed for missing the backpacking trip in Silverton, but happy I finally got to at least visit the place, I packed up camp and started to long drive to Page, Arizona. Page is a photographer’s dream, with dramatic rock and sandstone formations, slot canyons, Lake Powell, plenty of interesting plant and animal life and some famous attractions.
Most of the places I wanted to go shoot, as observed during my drive, I learned would be trespassing on Navajo land and I didn’t really want to learn about the tribal Justice System so instead I opted to just go to Horseshoe Bend for the third time in a year. My other choice was eating pita chips in my hotel room, a close second.
Horseshoe Bend is, on one hand, an Instagram trap that makes me kind of want to vomit. Yes, it’s an overblown spot filled with tourists. Inundated with tourists. But, it’s justifiable. Just ignore the crowds and let yourself be awe-struck by how SICK this landmark really is.
Trying to take a standard picture of this gargantuan gorge with a cell phone is a joke. Wide angle lenses, a favorite of mine, make the huge look tiny and the tiny look huge. To photograph HSB in one shot, you need a special wide-angle lens (mine was a 12mm Full Frame) and you’re pointing the camera almost straight down at the top of a 1,000-foot cliff. It’s wild. The monolithic rock in the center of Horseshoe Bend is the size of a skyscraper. It’s literally 1,000 feet high. It’s incredible.
In this iconic spot, there’s land, water and sky all creating one dramatic landscape. The sun isn’t setting just behind the mountains up close, but rather many miles in the distance, as the desert terrain behind Horseshoe Bend is pretty flat. So, the sun dramatically setting a hundred miles in the distance, the beautiful water of the Colorado churning a mile beneath your feet, the rocks all around you starting to glow, it’s quite a show. I almost felt like clapping. I’ve visited in the morning, blue hour, and sunset and there’s no question in my mind that sunset at Horseshoe Bend is an unforgettable experience. I wasn’t able to choose my vantage point, something tells me the best ones were spoken for an hour ago, but being at Horseshoe for sunset is a privilege not a right!
I’ve heard some claim there is no “best” time to experience Horseshoe Bend. I disagree. The sunset at this spot is unlike anything I’ve experienced. The depth of the canyon is breathtaking. The long light of the sunset makes the rocks around the rim of the canyon glow. While surrounded by hundreds of people, it’s entirely possible to take a photograph where it appears you have the place to yourself, adding to its magic. Adding to its allure. Here is a sampling of the people from all over the world who were there to enjoy it with me.
One other spot in the area that I wanted to check out before embarking into Utah was Stud Horse Point. This location appeared to have the other-worldly types of rock formations that have made other spots (Vermillion Cliffs, White Pocket) favorites with the millions of tourists that visit Page every year.
It’s tough to get to! My SUV has AWD and was not able to make it all the way. There is a lot of soft sand on these desert roads, and…All Wheel doesn’t cut it! With the sun setting, and looking to be a good one, with the “skunked” sunset, and the missed backpacking opportunity looming in the back of my mind…I frantically went into an all-out effort to get to Stud Horse, which was at this point within sight. I parked Sandy off to the side of the road in a safe location, grabbed my camera bag and tripod, and hike-jogged the remaining half mile to a location where I found some very dramatic, unique rock formations. I’m not sure how to describe the colors on the surrounding rocks and in the sky once I got there…very chameleon-like. I swear they changed colors every couple of minutes. Of the zesty compositions I found while scrambling, hiking, crawling and rolling around in the sand, one in particular stood out. A wide-angle lens gave these special rocks dominance over the surrounding landscape as Mother Nature put on a spectacle for the history books above. Loving it!
The next day I would have to exercise some restraint driving through Utah, as my prepared route took me past Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks with no time to experience either. Can’t do them all! I was going to need to go home and sleep in my own bed eventually. I can’t wait to visit these parks though.
I did want some soft evening light for the stated destination of the day, which was the Zebra slot canyon near Escalante, UT, so I took a few side trips along the way to kill an hour or two. The motto of Garfield County, Utah is “Take your Time.” I decided to heed this advice, and found some very heartwarming landscapes along the way.
Everyone knows how much I love Juniper Pines! They are such resilient little troopers and I love the way they sometimes stand proudly, on their own, triumphing over the demanding harsh desert climate, almost to claim victory.
The hike to Zebra Canyon was a fairly short jaunt through a desert gully. Slot canyons like Zebra are created over geologic time after many successive flash floods, and this canyon was reportedly filled with water just a couple of days before my visit. Upon reaching the canyon, I was amazed by how smooth its sandstone walls were, much like the slots of Antelope Canyon near Page, which can be viewed in my “Desert Dimensions” gallery.
Again behind the wheel, my route took me through a spot I’ve heard many photographers talk about lately, Utah’s forgotten National Park, Capitol Reef! Utah’s Iron and Uranium-rich, kickball-colored earth is on full display in this park. I didn’t have time to do much hiking but I explored it a little bit. I love how this weathered old tree, whose best days are clearly behind him, still sets the mood for the surrounding landscape in “No Worse for Wear.”
No Worse for Wear
I had no real agenda for the three ensuing days I was going to spend in Moab, and there’s a reason for that. If the sky was not going to cooperate, which to me means it is a bright sapphire with no clouds or other action in it, I was going to find some caves or canyons to shoot with a little bit better light. If the sky had action going on, a lucky break I felt I was due, you can pretty much just wander around Moab with a camera and not have a reason to put it down. As it would turn out, the latter tended to be the case!
After relaxing inside during the 107⁰ heat wave outdoors, I headed to one of my favorite National Parks, Canyonlands; unique among most National Parks in that it is divided into three distinct districts. I visited the remote, yet largely accessible by foot, Needles district in 2017, and you can view one of my favorite pictures, “Needles in the Sky” in my Desert Dimensions gallery. As you can see, that name is a play on the name of the district in which the photo was taken, and the one I was about to visit on this trip, “Island in the Sky”.
This district is visually stunning, with deep canyons and distant overlooks that could send even the most lost of souls into an introspective, calming, life-affirming state of meditation. The only problem is, save for a few designated viewpoints, you’ve got to have a pretty rugged 4x4 and your calendar clear for a few days just to navigate the canyon once in it. Canyonlands is the true Wild West…untamed, undeveloped, just miles and miles of desert and canyons ready to be explored by those prepared to deal with some of the harshest elements in the world.
I stopped on my way into the park to photograph another near-petrified tree remnant- again lucking out with dramatic skies that augmented the beauty of this place. I named this image as such because, on the one hand, I walked out into the desert to take a picture of a dead tree. But I saw a lot of things that are beautiful! It all depends on how you look at it.
Upon reaching my pre-determined location, an outlook of the Green River, the sky was once again aghast with activity. A distant thunderstorm, and some mesmerizing orange glow from the sunset made this a stunner! This is the first time I’ve ever photographed lightning, but will not be the last! The Island in the Sky is a true gem, maybe someday I’ll plan a mountain bike or Jeep tour of the canyon floor?
The next day my plan was to take an evening hike to Fisher Towers, a cool night-time photo location, to the end of the trail while scouting unique compositions of the sandstone towers for some possible night shots.
I arrived at the trailhead about 20 miles outside Moab, got all my hiking gear on, all my camera gear put together, filled up my water bottles and embarked on the trail around 17:30. Meaning, the rocks that made up the entirety of my surroundings had been absorbing and were now radiating enough heat to power a small to medium-sized city. I ventured out for about half an hour and turned around, dripping with sweat and already fatigued from what might be the most extreme heat I’ve ever been in.
On my way back towards town I came up with what appeared a very, very viable Plan B: Castle Valley. These are some pretty impressive rock formations. And again, in the now-expected spirit of magic that is the sunrise and sunset in Utah’s unreal canyons, buttes and other desertscapes, I sat there and watched the rocks turn colors right before my eyes. There’s nothing like it! Getting a shot like "Monumental Mystique" is all about timing, planning (or in this case, being aware), and listening to nature. Being in the right place at the right time. I got to take my time and carefully choose my composition on this one, as the sun slowly got lower and lower, magically changing the rocks’ colors as it bid us farewell. And with such class, and grace.
Although it’s another very heavily photographed overlook point, the aforementioned one in Canyonlands isn’t exactly a secret, photos I’ve seen of Dead Horse Point State Park made me look at my computer screen and say “SHUT. UP” so I had to see it in person. Whatever, I don’t care, it doesn’t matter if there’s 90 of us with tripods set up for the sunrise, I had to get that shot. Check it out at least.
I arrived about 45 minutes prior to sunrise (a miracle for this night owl) just as the blue hour was beginning. I had the place to myself. I found an adequately precarious spot to set up and enjoy a protein bar, and got buzzed by some sort of dragonfly/hummingbird type of creature about three feet from about a 1,200-foot vertical plunge, which I appreciated. A little fun, first thing in the morning! Wooo!
But other than that little wisenheimer of a bird, or insect, I honestly don’t know, you could have heard a pin drop two counties over. The irony is, sounds are magnified, but then again it is some of the deadest quiet I’ve ever heard, being atop these canyons. It’s some pretty odd acoustics. Anyway, I wasn’t there to study to be a foley artist, I’m more into imaging. The sun began to kiss the tops of the buttes and canyons and my mouth just hung open.
As the sun starts to rise, it truly speaks to the term “blue hour”, then as the light starts to peek from the distant buttes to the east, the blue changes to purple, then to orange, then to red, and depending on the moisture and clarity of the air, from that point on God only knows what colors you’ll see. I’ll be you could visit this spot ten times and remember distinct differences from each time.
I watched a video on YouTube by a local Moab photographer, pontificating about the nuances of photography in the area. Something that he said stuck with me, “A lifetime isn’t enough time to enjoy all the beauty this area has to offer.” I think that might literally, mathematically be true. You’ve just got to make the most of what you do have time to enjoy.
On the way home, I stopped to meet up with Amanda and hike to the Crystal Mill near Marble, Colorado. This is a great 10-mile hike, even if the trail is a fairly heavily trafficked 4x4 road. Honestly, it just felt so great to be back in the Great State! I plan to spend the rest of the summer shooting mostly Colorado as I don’t feel I’ve been able to soak in a lot of what it has to offer. Amanda and I enjoyed a cold soda from the General Store in the ghost town of Crystal, I took the obligatory Crystal Mill photo, and after eating some of the best BBQ in the WORLD at Slow Jammin’ in the town of Marble, it was time to make my way back to Denver, ear to ear grins from the exact Southwest adventure I had been hoping for.
Feel free to comment, cruise through my galleries and shop for prints. Thank you for reading and I hope you’re having a great summer!!!