Trip Report: Canyons of Utah: Zion & Bryce – February 2020

Wind-blasted rock and wind-blown humans.

“By the strength of my arm, by the sight of my eye, by the skill of my fingers, I swear,

As long as life dwells in me, never will I follow any way but the sweeping way of the wind.”

-Everett Ruess

Young Mr. Ruess knew and loved the Colorado Plateau of Southern Utah enough to know that it can get windy, at times.

Really windy.

This legendary rambler and artist had been all around the backcountry of this area, with his trusty mule laden with his provisions and painting supplies. He knew and loved this truly unique area of the world enough that he wanted to represent it, as best as he could, through the medium of painting and woodcut prints. He braved the wind and the wilderness to capture a bit of its essence. So, digital camera equipment loaded up, our Backcountry Journeys group set out into the wind and wilderness to hopefully capture the same spirit of the land that Everett experienced.

We were five individuals; Matthew, Stuart, Paula, Phil, and myself. Ruess has an old burro for his gear, however, we of the modern era chose the comfort of a Chevy Tahoe XL. Because it blocks the wind and smells better than a burro.

Waking up early in St. George to make the almost hour-long drive to Zion, with a brief stop for coffee, we arrived with some cloudy skies and questionable lighting. Our destination for sunrise was the Court of the Patriarchs. These are three enormous sandstone peaks, arising out of the western end of the canyon with the Virgin River below. The peaks were named in 1916, by a Methodist minister after three prominent fathers (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) from the Old Testament of the Bible.

The sunrise started off slow but gave us time to take in the scene and settle into our first shoot. As the sun rose higher, we ended up receiving some epic lighting because of an incoming snowstorm. The sun would periodically peek through the breaks in the storm clouds and streak the sandstone towers with beautiful bands of light that only lasted for seconds at a time.

The clouds eventually took over, flurries began to fall with increasing intensity, and the lighting faded in Zion Canyon, so we headed to up to the Highlands through the famous tunnel. Completed in 1930 with a length of 1.1 miles, with an elevation gain of 800 feet, this tunnel connects Zion Canyon and the communities to the west with the highlands to the east.

Flurries increased, but the scenery opened up in spite of the diminished visibility. The Highlands of Zion is quite a different place than Zion Canyon. Our destination was the famous Checkerboard Mesa. An appropriately named monolith of cross-bedded Navajo sandstone, rising 900 feet above the highway.

We reached it with some diffused lighting and amazing textures with a light dusting of snow getting trapped in the cracks of the sandstone, accenting the already dramatic characteristics of this geologic feature. The storm began to break as we were shooting and we had blue skies and the sun diffused by the thinning clouds. It was already an old favorite feature of Phil’s from previous visits to the park, and it soon became a new favorite for the rest of us, with Matthew and Paula even getting down onto the snowy ground to get some dramatic angles of the Mesa.

 

We reluctantly left a great area, all of us feeling that we’d captured some great images and that there was more to be had elsewhere. A short distance down the highway there is one of the more famous pine trees that grow right out of the eroded sandstone buttes. The “Cliff Diver” grows right out of the rock formation, bending down over the side, with its crown at the same level as it’s roots appearing to dive off of the butte. The slight dusting of snow in the cracks emphasized the texture created by the eroded sandstone layers and made this a unique shot of an iconic location.

After a delicious lunch at Park House Cafe, we set out back into Zion Canyon to see how the lighting would be on Angel’s Landing. Angel’s Landing is a huge sandstone fin, rising 1,488 feet from the floor of Zion Canyon. It is so impressively tall that when the Mormon settlers came in 1858 they said about it, “it’s so high up there that only the angels could land up there.” The trail is 5 miles round-trip with 21 switchbacks, the famous “Walter’s Wiggles”, and a chain system to aid hikers in safely reaching the top. We weren’t even thinking about that aggressive of a hike, so we set up to shoot the beautiful sandstone monolith with the Virgin River in the foreground. The storm was breaking up again and gave us some blue sky, scattered clouds, and fantastic lighting on the face of Angel’s Landing. Later in the day, we photographed The Great White Throne, rising 2350 feet from the canyon floor, from the backside of Angel’s Landing.

For sunset, we took the Pa’rus Trail along the Virgin River to photograph the iconic Watchman. Along the trail, Matthew spotted a Mule Deer Buck about 150 feet away calmly grazing. He hadn’t shed his horns from last year’s rut and was beautifully backdropped but a red sandstone boulder. The Watchman, an almost a half-mile wide sandstone feature, rising to a height of 1,500 feet, with a west-facing slope that catches the late rays of the setting sun. The Watchman has become an iconic feature of the park, especially for photographers. So popular that it’s begun to have a negative impact on these locations. In an effort to reduce the repetitive impact on natural surroundings, new park regulations have made it difficult to shoot in some of the previously known locations, so we went to a different location along the Pa’Rus Trail to capture this iconic feature. We were able to photograph the Watchman and the Virgin River, as well as the moonrise over the cliffs behind us.  As the sun faded the temperatures dropped so we called it a day and went to dinner.

Day two brought us clear bluebird skies. Our morning shoot, at the Tower of the Virgin, was a show of the sun’s rays illuminating first the West Tower, then the Sundial, and last the Altar of Sacrifice. As the cliff face became fully illuminated, and everyone satisfied with the shots they’d captured at that location, we headed up Zion Canyon to try another shot at the Court of the Patriarchs. The lighting was completely different from the previous morning’s shoot, so everyone was getting great images of the towering peaks of Abraham and Isaac, and their reflections in the Virgin River below.

To round out the morning shoot, we drove out to the Kolob Terrace area of Zion National Park to check out some of the lesser-traveled places of this beautiful national treasure. As we were shooting this area, Stuart remarked that he thought this might be a good location for sunrises. I think I agree with him.

We drove back to Springdale for lunch at Oscar’s Cafe. I’ve been coming to this place for years and it NEVER disappoints. Delicious southwestern dishes to satisfy your taste for some local flare, as well as many other familiar offerings. In the summer, this is the place to go for a margarita after a day exploring the park.

After lunch, we took a break at the hotel and I presented a brief walk-through of Lightroom basics and how to produce an HDR image. HDR images can really help when shooting the canyons of the Southwest. With light temperatures often being at opposite ends of the extremes, this is a great tool to balance out the temps, especially if you don’t want to use costly graduated neutral density filters.

We started the sunset shoot off near the Grotto with Angel’s Landing as our main subject. We arrived in time to capture some great reflections in the river and even had the opportunity to witness some mating pair of Common Merganser swimming in the river and taking in the fading light.

With time still left, We decided to chase the light down the canyon and try a different angle at the iconic Watchman. We went to a spot that I had recently scouted and got there in time to have some great lighting and some fine compositions. Phil was literally “floored” by this sunset shoot, getting down in the dirt for his composition.

Waking up early enough to get packed up and checked out of our hotel, we headed towards our Sunrise location at Canyon Overlook. This half-mile hike takes you to an amazing view of the canyon from above the tunnel. Lingering clouds made the lighting difficult, so we headed back to the vehicle to shoot the Checkerboard Mesa again en route to Bryce.

We reached Bryce Canyon in time for lunch at Ruby’s Inn. We were able to get checked into our hotel early and get in a little rest before the afternoon shoot. We started the afternoon at Natural Bridge, a geologic feature in which the erosive elements have weathered a natural window in the rock formation. After a quick shoot here, we headed over to Sunrise Point for our sunset shoot.

This evening’s sunset shoot really never came to fruition. Thick clouds had really taken over the sky, the lighting never came around, and it was extremely cold and windy. This theme of wind and cold would dominate the rest of our trip. So, with a little disappointment with the weather, we called it a night and headed indoors to warm up and have a meal.

 

With it still cold, and with the wind still blowing, we left the hotel for our planned destination of Sunset Point. The colors began to fill up the sky a little earlier than anticipated and we set up as the show had already begun. As the early colors faded, the clear horizon began to fill with glowing, golden light. As the sun peaked over the horizon it produced a beautiful sun stars effect which lasted only a few seconds. The light from the rising sun then filled up Bryce Amphitheater, bringing out the natural reds, deep oranges, subtle yellows of the rocks, and making the greens in the vegetation glow. This is a great location for sunrise when you have the right elements to come together like we had this particular morning. A colorful sky, a brilliant shot into the sun on the horizon, and golden light filling up a beautiful and expansive landscape. Maybe my favorite shot of this trip.

It started to cloud up, so with the brilliant lighting leaving us, we headed in for lunch and a little rest and a warm-up. A few of us met up for an impromptu presentation of “canyon country tricks of the trade” and “canyon compositions.” After the presentation, it seemed that the clouds were starting to break and there might be a chance for some color in the sky. So we bundled up for the cold and headed out for our sunset shoot.

We arrived early enough at Inspiration Point to scout our compositions, and hopefully get some late afternoon lighting in the amphitheater. Unfortunately, the clouds were just not kind enough to let the sun through enough to do that. So we spent time to and from the vehicle, shooting, and warming up. When almost all hope was lost for any color, it all began to unfold. Some light began to hit the lower clouds to the south and then the clouds above ya slowly unfolded into beautiful purples and magentas. The color proceeded to get deeper and deeper, and with the almost-full moon in the sky, the hoodoos of Bryce below, the scene took on a surreal appearance. Such deep color in this sunset that it looks over-saturated in original files.

As the color faded, the cold and wind had taken its toll and we wrapped up the evening’s shoot. We were all very satisfied with what we were able to witness this day, and capture, so we headed back to Ruby’s for dinner.

We all woke up and got on the road a little earlier this morning, in hopes of catching the early colors. Braving the freezing temperatures and the now seemingly gale-force winds, we arrived at our morning shoot location at Bryce Point. The pre-dawn light was beginning to hit the clouds to the East as we set up our compositions.

 

The wind was truly a factor, as Bryce Point lies on the highest point of Bryce Amphitheater and it is extremely exposed. We used microspikes over our shoes to provide better traction on the icy pathway and be able to concentrate on the shoot. When everyone was set up, Mother Nature gave us our second brilliant light show in less than 14 hours. Again; pinks, purples, magenta, and brilliant yellows unfolded in the clouds to the East. And, with the cold wind howling in our faces, we were able to capture it all. It was a perfect way to close out a great trip on a fantastic note.

 

Many thanks to my fellow travelers on this adventure. We endured the elements with optimism and grace and had some great success. I hope that our paths cross again in the future, and safe travels until they do.

“I wish that all of nature’s magnificence, the emotion of the land, the living energy of place could be photographed.”

— Annie Leibovitz

PJ O’ Malley

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PJ received his first camera, a Nikon 35mm SLR when he was 16. He obsessively studied photojournalism in high school, contributing to both the school yearbook and newspaper. He discovered a love of landscape photography while on a hiking trip in Grand Canyon with his uncle while still in high school. Many years later he randomly found himself guiding photography trips at the Grand Canyon for National Geographic Expeditions. What was originally thought to be a job for one summer season turned out to be a career that has lasted over 10 years. He has contributed to magazines, websites, and advertisements over the years while guiding guests around the many beautiful national parks and public lands in the U.S. He calls Northern Arizona home, but feels most at home “anywhere it’s wild.”

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