It was around the late 1940s, and early 1950s, when the Atomic Energy Commission raised the price of uranium, declared itself the only legal buyer, and thus created a mining boom that extended into the southeastern corner of Utah, near the town of Moab. The uranium boom brought to this area a mass of prospectors, including down-on-his-luck, former oil geologist, Charlie Steen. Steen (not Sheen), while stopping to fill his jeep with gas, decided to have a blackish core that had earlier in the week broken off his drill bit, tested with a Geiger counter. The needle went crazy, and with that, Steen had himself the nation’s first big uranium strike. He was subsequently thrust into riches beyond his wildest dreams, becoming known as the “Uranium King.”
By 1959, more than 300,000 claims were filed in Utah, and by 1962, Utah had produced 9 million tons of ore worth $25 million. The industry employed more than 8000 workers, and the sleepy town of Moab was transformed into the “Uranium Capital of the World.”
Today, Moab has once again become a bustling ‘capital of the world,’ but instead of monetary riches as the draw, its astounding outdoors opportunities are providing visitors “riches” of a different kind. Namely, riches in wonderment, in active pursuits, and in collecting memories the kind only time in nature can provide. Redrock country, as well as the neighboring La Sal Mountains, draws outdoor enthusiasts from climbers, mountain bikers, campers, dirt-bikers, side-by-sides, and RVs in great numbers. Moab is bustling to the brink of being downright just too busy. Two iconic National Parks; Arches and Canyonlands are nearby, as is Deadhorse Point State Park, and Indian Creek (land managed by the BLM). There are plenty of reasons for Moab’s popularity in 2021, even without a boom and bounty on anything except good feelings and fun. And for myself, and a group of five Backcountry Journeys’ guests, all of that plus fantastic photographic opportunity awaited!
BCJ pays a visit each autumn and springtime in a quest to photograph this region on our Canyons of Utah: Arches & Canyonlands landscape-based photography tour. This report highlights our 2021 autumn trip.
This trip would be different for me, as normally I’d drive up to Moab from Flagstaff, a roughly 5 hr drive, not far removed from southeastern Utah in its landscapes and climate. Since last running this tour, however, I moved from Flagstaff to Bellingham, Washington, and have been getting used to the starkly different climate and surroundings there. As such, this year, I began my journey by flying to Salt Lake and trying to get my brain switched from rain jackets to Chacos and synthetic layering systems to match cold mornings and shorts weather by mid-afternoon.
We met in the lobby of our hotel, the lovely and accommodating Homewood Inn & Suites, which is strategically located right on Main Street, Moab. It is a nice hotel, they have everything including the largest rooms of any I’ve stayed in on BCJ trips. They’re like studio apartments. Best of all, Moab is walkable from here, and on this trip, we’d take advantage of that for our evening dinners. After our presentation and a quick question and answer session, we walked to a corner restaurant, The Trailhead Public House and Eatery. The weather was still quite nice in Moab, even in the evening, so we dined on their rooftop patio before heading for bed. The next morning would be the earliest of our week.
Mesa Arch morning on this itinerary is unlike most. It is a location that has become increasingly popular with photographers and lookie-loos, alike, and the shot is one where you need to be in the exact right spot, so the name of the game is getting there before everyone else. What’s more is that most folks now know this, making it essential to get there even earlier than the smart ones who’ve done their “research.”
Mesa Arch is located in the Islands in the Sky District of Canyonlands, a roughly 50-minute drive from our hotel. This means we left early. Like, 0-dark:30 early. But, it paid off as we got there first! The parking lot was empty, and even better, the temperature was not all that cold. We made our way up and down the trail to the edge of the canyon where this “smaller-than-I-thought” arch sits overlooking the canyons below. The La Sal Mountains punctuate the horizon, and when the sun comes up the scene becomes a thing of dreams for landscapers. Quite the first shot of the trip!
Following this first early and lengthy morning, it’s always nice to get back to the hotel for some hot coffee and to peel back some of those warm layers. Changing attire from Mesa Arch sunrise to mid-morning hike in Moab at this point in the calendar means you go from base layers, fleece and ‘puffy’ jackets, stocking caps and gloves, to shorts, Chacos, and a tee-shirt. Make sure you have your sunscreen, shades, and a hat, too! So, following that dance routine, we set off for a hike to Corona Arch (It got it’s now unfortunate name years ago).
Hiking this roughly 3 mile round trip trail up a ladder, or two, across the slick rock, definitely has a payoff, as the towering arch wows us. You can see the arch from far off as you approach, so many visitors here will take a look, say “oh, that’s awesome,” and then turn around and hike out. Not our group! We were doing the whole enchilada, walking the entirety of the deal so as to get all the way up and under the 105-foot tall sandstone arch.
Our evening shot was of Balanced Rock and the scene that surrounds it at Arches National Park. Balanced Rock stands at 128 feet tall and is exactly as it sounds. It is a gigantic boulder on top of a pedestal. Like many of the features here, it won’t be long before it topples to the ground. Or, maybe it will be here forever. This is one of the most iconic scenes at Arches, and we were there on a perfect evening for it! Cotton Candy colored clouds blessed our group with gorgeous colorfully marked-up skies. While the rock itself did not glow its signature evening red, as it does with clear western skies, the sky was one of the best I’ve seen providing us with nice opportunities to size up Balanced Rock and its surroundings with some alpenglow on the La Sals to complete things.
The following morning’s sunrise shot would be at the Windows Section of Arches, with Turret Arch as our main subject. A rehash of the previous evening began shortly after our arrival, the sky was so incredible all around it was difficult to shoot photographs without thinking in the back of our minds that we might be missing something, somewhere, around the next bend, or corner. Turret got amazing soft light, glowing red just as we hoped, but it was fleeting, to say the least. But, we were prepared and managed to take advantage of it.
After a couple of additional teaser glows, it faded for good as the sun rose high enough in the sky. The sky was filled with white puffy clouds by now, great clouds with plenty of breaks. Just like you’d dial it up. We were going to be able to shoot all day, it seemed. We checked out Double Arch, which is the one Indiana Jones ran out from during the opening sequence of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. We stopped at various viewpoints as we made our way through the park, one to capture an image of the vast expanse of the Petrified Desert with the La Sal in the background, complete with snowy peaks and soft light.
We stopped at a nice vantage point to capture images of the towering rock complete with the autumn golds of the cottonwood trees that line Courthouse Wash. We walked Park Ave and discussed the things that happened, geologically speaking, well before humans were here that led to what we were seeing now. We pointed out the various sedimentary rock layers on display and got creative with our imagery using things like crack, sand dunes, narrow-leaf yucca, and puddles of water to enhance our imagery, constantly considering composition with a careful, yet artful eye. This was a recurring topic throughout this trip. Composition. Such an important thing to always consider when behind the lens be it with landscapes or wildlife photography. How do we continue to push ourselves to get better?
Lunch at the Moab Food Truck Court was next and was a good time. A few years back the food court in Moab sprung up to allow for a central location for local food truck merchants to park in one location, set up outdoor picnic tables… This allowed us all a chance to choose from a variety of items like Chinese, BBQ, tacos, pizza, and more. A local musician, dressed as a cowboy, entertained with tunes about life in Moab, or something like that.
Following a short break, we took to the road and headed up to Deadhorse Point State Park. The view here is probably my favorite view that encompasses the canyonlands below. While this spot is not inside neighboring Canyonlands National Park, it surpasses any over there in terms of compositional opportunities and angle from which to size up a fantastic sunset. Karen and Ed brought with them a bottle of champagne, and the group (minus the driver) had a drink of bubbly while drinking in yet another cotton candy sky over the red canyons below.
Dinner this evening was at a new Moab restaurant, the Spitfire Smokehouse. This spot is what it sounds like, a BBQ joint featuring a wide selection of meats and sides that you’d expect. Sauces were tasty, the outdoor patio was electric, and that same “cowboy” was playing once again for our enjoyment. No, BCJ did not hire him for the day. Maybe we should, though?
Day four began outside of either National Park, as we traveled along the Colorado River corridor to the foothills of the nearby La Sal Mountains. A little tucked-away corner called Castle Valley. Fans of the hit HBO series, Westworld might recall the setting, as this spot played a principal role in season one. To the west is Porcupine Ridge, a hot spot for mountain bikers as the World Famous “Whole Enchilada” bike ride cruises across the ridge as it travels between the high country in the La Sals to Moab. Turn 180 degrees and here sits two famous rocks: ‘Castleton Tower,’ and the neighboring ‘Rectory.’ These rocks are famous in the outdoor adventure and rock climbing community and have been featured in films and commercials.
We sized up this scene from a variety of angles, using our own personal creativity to show this special location as a warm breath of morning sunshine began to kiss the side of the rock, illuminating it slowly in front of our eyes. A hint of that cotton candy color in the sky was present again, as another special gift. We changed locations, just a bit, as a nearby spring bubbling to the surface has offered a ripe spot for cottonwood trees to grow, and at this time in October, they were at their best, flashing their golden leaves.
Our mission for our final evening together would be Delicate Arch, and the 3 miles, +/- nearly 500 feet hike necessary to get to the vantage point. To prepare for this challenge, and to have some time to explore the town of Moab freely, we took the afternoon off following a delicious brunch and rested or visited galleries or the other cute shops that line the Main street in downtown Moab.
We got an early start for our journey up to Delicate Arch. The hike, again, is a 1.5-mile trek across the ‘slickrock’ up a seemingly endless hill to a vista that is one you’ve seen in picture books, postcards, and maybe in dreams.
Seeing Delicate for the first time is one of those moments. Arches National Park has over 2,000 stone arches, yet this particular free-standing arch has become a widely recognized symbol of the state of Utah and one of the most famous geologic features in the world. It has withstood the hands of time, standing there on the slope all by itself, with the snow-capped La Sal Mountains off in the distance behind. What geologists label a free-standing arch, Delicate has managed to stave off elimination by erosion because of a harder rock cap at the top that slows the process. It has had more than a few names in its history, from the colorful “Cowboy’s Chaps”, “Old Maid’s Bloomers” to “Salt Wash Arch”. The term “Delicate” first appeared in a January 1934 article about the Arches National Monument Scientific Expedition, which described it as “the most delicately chiseled arch in the entire area.”
For us, the light we were hoping for didn’t exactly pan out, yet the journey and the imagery we were able to create while enjoying just sitting in this grand location, was certainly worth the effort. Following our walk back in the dark, we had one final dinner together outside at The Spoke on Center, a nice grub hub on Main Street just a short walk from our hotel. I had the fish tacos, and even though one would not normally identify southeastern Utah cuisine with fish (I don’t think it was a local Colorado River catch), the tacos were really good! A lovely little bow on the evening, for sure.
Our final morning was a great one. We departed early for Devil’s Garden with our sights set on the widest (or longest) arch in the park, and possibly the world.
Landscape Arch, one of the world’s longest stone spans at 306 feet wide. Incredibly it is only roughly 11 feet thick at its center. As we stand below this massive feature, thoughts certainly turn to “when will this thing fall, and from where will it break?” How can such a thing stay in place? The answer, much like every rock feature here, is that it’s currently in a state of destruction. Eventually, they all will fall. In 1991, a 60-foot-long slab of rock fell from the bottom of Landscape Arch, the remnants are still below posing as a boulder field. There is not much room to move around for us here at the base of this arch, and its tenuous existence is mostly to blame. Being in the wrong spot at the wrong time here will result in bad things for all involved.
To get to Landscape Arch, we navigate in the dark a nearly one-mile trail through the “garden” and all of the amazing rocks, junipers, narrow-leaf yuccas, and sand dunes there. The Devil tends a nice garden, I must say. The shot at Landscape Arch is pretty straightforward. A wide-angle lens is a go-to lens here, and to get the entirety of the thing you need it all. Shortly after sunrise, the arch glows a soft red, which is just delicious. The challenge here is to find a more creative way to photograph this fascinating …. After a huge portion of this arch collapsed in the early 1990s, the Park has sectioned off the entire area under and around this arch, and a good portion of the area behind the trail is also sectioned off for regrowth opportunities. There aren’t many different ways to shoot this thing. The group took that challenge and sure showed me.
Following the shot we made our way back up the trail, stopping for anything that caught our eye, including Pine Arch, which I think deserves much more fame than it receives. It’s a really nice arch and based upon the cracks in the rock face, I’d expect the opening to get larger and larger sometime soon. That, or in 100 years, who can say?
After returning to Moab, we check out from our hotel and say our goodbyes. This would be my final BCJ trip for 2021, and a hearty thanks go out to this wonderful group of like-minded humans. Noel, Ric, Ed & Karen, and Marty… Let’s do it again, someday! Y’all pick the spot, I’ll be there! Thank you for a special time. Some folks are staying a day longer, others are driving into the desert and towards the Rocky Mountains off to our east, others fly away to new adventures from the tiny Moab airport located just outside of town.
As I drive off to Salt Lake to catch my flight back home, I say goodbye to the desert, a place I’ve called home for so long and already miss. Felt like a bit of a homecoming, yet it had been a long time since I’d last been to this particular little corner of heaven. “This is the most beautiful place on earth,” Edward Abby once said. I don’t disagree. Especially during autumn at Arches & Canyonlands.
Kenton Krueger has spent the past several years guiding backpackers, hikers, and photographers into the wild places of the American West such as Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier, Katmai, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, Canyonlands National Parks, as well as internationally in Costa Rica & Brazil. In addition to backpacking and camping, his adventures include rock climbing, exploring the slot canyons of southern Utah, mountain biking, and bagging 14ers in Colorado’s San Juan Mountain Mountain Range. Kenton is a trail runner, former pilot, and spent roughly five years writing and photographing for the award-winning Omaha World-Herald newspaper, out of his hometown, Omaha, Nebraska. Kenton looks forward to utilizing his years of trip leading and guiding experience, combined with his passion and experience behind the lens, to provide memorable and unforgettable experiences at the wild places we will visit together.