Here in Northern Arizona, autumn color is a fairly well-kept secret. While locations like Maine, Vermont, and Colorado get the attention from “leaf-peepers” during this time of year, here in the southwest we quietly enjoy our fall regalia with more humility and solitude. And solitude, in this year of socially distancing, is a good thing.
So, it was with this in mind that seven adventurous Backcountry Journeys’ photographers embarked with their two guides on a trip to take in the fall colors, enjoy our nation’s public lands, and learn to navigate the new social protocols and health care measures needed to make outdoor travel safe and enjoyable in this new era with the presence of Covid-19. Our trip began, as they always do, with a traditional first-night orientation dinner.
The first two days featured locations around the San Francisco Peaks, just north of Flagstaff. This “mountain range” is actually the remains of an eroded stratovolcano. The largest of the 1,800 square miles San Francisco Volcanic Field, that was a result of tectonic movement over a geologic hot spot for several million years.
Our first morning’s shoot, at Lockett Meadow, on the north side of the San Francisco Peaks is a favorite for locals. This meadow offers a view of the Inner Basin, which is the place where the eroded avalanche of the stratovolcano opens up towards Mt. Humphreys at 12,633 ft, and the highest point in Arizona. The Quaking Aspen, which blanket the slopes, and border the meadow, were only just beginning to reveal their color, which combined with the soft light of the rising sun was a great way to begin our trip.
Following sunrise, we circumnavigated the Peaks on a game drive, returning to Flagstaff midday in time for a few shots of the historic train station, that sits in historic downtown, as well as a delicious lunch on the patio of the Lumberyard Brewery.
Saddle Mountain, a cinder cone north of Flagstaff, would be our evening location, and did it satisfy! The early moonrise in the sky with the mountain made for a truly fantastic scene.
Our final Flagstaff shoot took us to Kendrick Park, where we were treated to some wispy pink clouds in the eastern sky. A solitary Aspen posed well for us in the foreground. As the sun came up it illuminated the adjacent Kendrick Mountain, which was in full autumn color.
When the light changed, we headed back to Flagstaff, packed up the vehicles, and headed for the south rim of Grand Canyon National Park for a quick tour of the historic buildings there, our first view of the Grand Canyon, and lunch at the Bright Angel Lodge.
Desert View Drive, which travels alongside the rim from west to east took us to Lipan Point, near the eastern edge of the Park. Lipan offers many fantastic compositions, with great sightlines of the famous rock formations, spectacular river views, and the wonderful s-shaped curves of the Unkar Delta below the rim. This location is a favorite for many photographers and it certainly didn’t disappoint on this night.
The following morning we headed to capture the sunrise from Yavapai Point, our final spot at the South Rim. Named after the Yavapai Tribe, this location offers a stunning 180-degree view of the Grand Canyon’s deepest point. From there one is able to shoot directly into the sun as it rises, then shoot west and capture the light slowly illuminating the cliffs as the sun’s rays enter the canyon’s depths. The sun produced some fantastic starburst effects as it rose over the Palisades of The Desert on this morning creating an iconic moment everyone enjoyed.
After everyone was satisfied with the morning shoot, we packed up our things and headed back to Flagstaff for lunch at Beaver Street Brewery. Our destination for the evening shoot was Alstrom Point, near Page, AZ. This is normally a 3-hour drive from the South Rim. However, since the east entrance of the Park is currently closed, it required a re-routing back through Flagstaff, almost doubling our travel time. We arrived at our sunset location on time, and a bit road weary, but the scene at Alstrom Point made for some happy photographers.
With the nearly full moon hanging over the reservoir that is known as Lake Powell, with the Earth Shadow lingering, a surreal landscape unfolded before our eyes. A special “Tailgate Taco Tuesday,” prepared by the guides/drivers/chefs, completed our evening.
The next morning’s shoot required another quick COVID audible, which took us to a special spot overlooking the Marble Platform and the Vermillion Cliffs. After our morning shoot, we headed to the North Rim, stopping at Cliff Dwellers for lunch along the way. We checked into the cabins on the North Rim, taking in the sunset from various vantage points along Bright Angel Point trail. This evening’s shoot treated us to not only sunset at Grand Canyon but also a full moon rise!
For our first sunrise at the North Rim, we chose Point Imperial. With its views of Mt Hayden below and the South Rim in the distance, this made for a very dramatic scene.
After sunrise, we drove along the forest service road out towards Saddle Mountain to find some fall colors, and hopefully some wildlife. We were extremely successful with the fall colors. The Quaking Aspen along the road were in their peak autumn regalia. The group went about shooting these scenes as if they were at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Many practicing some abstract techniques they had recently learned, with great results!
En route to our cabins, we lucked out with a herd of Bison hanging out in one of the meadows along the highway. This introduced species, the result of a failed ranching/business idea, have become a bit of a problem for the Park Service and the Forest Service.
These “Beefalo” are genetically domestic cattle and Bison. Not indigenous to the environment, they have been overgrazing and having a negative effect on the overall health of the surrounding environment. We stopped to capture some great images of these animals, with fall colors as the backdrop.
After an afternoon break, we moved towards Cape Royal for sunset. An iconic location for sunset, Cape Royal offers a view of Wotan’s Throne reaching out from the rim towards the setting sun. With views of Vishnu Temple, and Angel Window also available, as well as views of Zoroaster Temple, there was plenty to go around.
The final shot of the trip was sunrise at Vista Encantada – a last-minute choice that proved to be one of the more successful shoots of the trip. The large side canyon visible from this pint provided an amphitheater that the sun-filled up slowly as it rose over the horizon. The young Aspen trees had changed and were perfectly backlit to produce an almost neon effect. The shoot even produced some “crepuscular rays” off of the canyon’s ridgelines.
A perfect way to close up the final shoot of a trip that took us all through one of the world’s most surreal landscapes of the world, during one of the most surreal years on record.
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.”