The canyons of Utah will always have a special place in my heart. Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon National Park were the first parks that I visited in my life and they represented my first glimpse into the beautiful country of the western United States. I got engaged to my wife in the Narrows of Zion National Park, and have been to Zion National Park more than any other park. The Canyons of Utah trip last spring was also my first guided trip for Backcountry Journeys. No matter what, the canyons, desert, and badlands of Utah and the American southwest continue to draw me in. When asked where my favorite photography locations are, the answer is always the same, the Pacific Northwest and the Southwest. So, it goes without saying that I was ecstatic to have the opportunity to co-lead this fall Canyons of Utah trip.
We spent the first week of November enjoying the peak fall foliage in Zion National Park before moving onto the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon National Park. As always, our group was fantastic, the most enjoyable thing about any Backcountry Journeys is the fact that I (and guests) get to spend the week with others just as passionate about photographing nature and the outdoors. Conversation is always thoughtful and shooting as a group makes each individual better. For instance, this past week we were shooting the Great White Throne in Zion from the Virgin River. I came across guest John Barbour shooting a fantastic composition, one that I had walked right by. I discussed the composition with John and we shared ideas on perfecting the frame. Things like this happen all the time on our photography workshops. As a member of our workshops, much can be learned from our guides, but also from fellow members.
The trip started with a meet and greet at the Rib & Chop House on Sunday night. Unfortunately, it was hard to focus on trip logistics because the sky was absolutely on fire. Many of us wished we were shooting that night, but the hotel pool was about the only landscape option available so we focused on the next morning with hopeful hearts that great weather conditions would persist. And they did. After an early drive from St. George to the gates of Zion National Park, we stopped to shoot the iconic Towers of the Virgins. The sandstone walls towered over our group and the Weather Gods graced us with a fiery morning sunrise. It was a very special morning and the best conditions we had throughout our entire trip. We were able to shoot well past sunrise as the light continued to get better and more clouds formed. After an hour or so, we moved onto to photograph the Watchman, maybe the most photographed rock in the southwest. The Watchman generally is a fantastic focal point for sunset shots, but the mid-morning light offered us a different perspective on the icon. We meandered down the Virgin River and spent some time capturing some water movement in the foreground of the Watchman. Quick tip, moving water is always a great leading line. We discussed the power of water in terms of composition and then called it a morning. We regrouped around 12pm so to enjoy lunch at Oscar’s, my personal favorite restaurant in Springdale. Zion is blessed with excellent restaurants and we spent our non-photographing time sampling some of the great restaurants. Sunset on day one didn’t bring us the same great conditions and we were forced to make the best of a cloudless sky. Thankfully, the vibrant cottonwoods and maples make for great photos in any light so we turned our attention to the fall colors and reflections.
Fall is by far my favorite time to photograph. Colors, dramatic weather, and of course sleep. Yes, sleep. Fall allows us photographers to sleep in until 6am or so for sunrise and we usually finish shooting sunset around 6-7pm. Compare that to getting up at 4:30am for sunrise and finishing at 10:00pm in summer. So, after a goods night sleep we ventured out to shoot Court of the Patriarchs for our Day 2 sunrise. The Court of the Patriarchs is my favorite easily accessible sunrise area in Zion. Pictures and words cannot do the three towers justice. Clear skies welcomed us once again, but we made the most of it. The Virgin River cascades right in front of the Court of Patriarchs and offers a fantastic foreground so we had a lot of fun photographing the two together. We then proceeded to hike the Riverwalk Trail starting at Tempe of Sinawava, the last shuttle stop on the Zion Canyon Road. The Riverwalk Trail is the entrance trail to the famous Narrows, but it offers many photogenic vantage points before the trail turns into water. The area is actually best shot with clear skies and lots of sun thus conditions treated us well. We spent time shooting the Virgin River with peak fall color before taking a quick break before sunset. With clear skies again, we headed out for sunset. Clear skies turned into our theme for the week. It seemed that we just missed a front moving through, which left us with a high pressure system and bluebird skies. This is part of photography and we made the most of it. Sunset brought us to the Great White Throne, a towering mass of white rock overlooking the Virgin River. We experimented with focus stacking and used some of the many cottonwood trees to frame the Great White Throne.
And just like that, our time in Zion had come down to one last final morning. We got of the shuttle bus at The Grotto and took a short walk to a grand view of Angel’s Landing. We viewed Angel’s Landing from the river, though many hike up the many switchbacks and built-in chains to the very summit, which offers a great view as well. After an hour or so of shooting we went back to our vehicle and spent the rest of the morning shooting along the east side of Zion National Park. We marveled at the amazing geology and even spotted some bighorn sheep around the Checkerboard Mesa area. Park rangers were stopped as well, and informed us that they were attempting to dart one of the sheep in the harem so they could get a GPS collar on one. As the light got harsh, we said a sad goodbye to the majestic Zion National Park and drove two hours north to our next destination, Bryce Canyon National Park.
Our travel day was go-go-go and without much downtime, we ventured out to Inspiration Point and Bryce Point for the evening lightshow. Bryce National Park is an east facing park and is almost always best at sunrise, but the soft evening light offers a different perspective on many of the iconic hoodoos of Bryce National Park. Bryce is also one of those parks that offers opportunities to photography at a super wide focal length all the way to super tele length (we’re talking 14mm-600mm). There is literally a shot to be had everywhere. As soon as the sun set, a brisk wind set in and foreshadowed what we might be in for the next morning. We awoke the next morning and headed out to the vehicle, greeted with temperatures in the low teens and a chilling wind. But, we had our eyes set on Thor’s Hammer. We made our way to Sunset Point to shoot sunrise, ironic, but Sunset Point offers one of the best sunrise vistas in the park. Some of us hiked down the Navajo Loop trail to gain a better angle on Thor’s Hammer, while the rest of us meandered along the rim, photographing the canyon as the light changed. It was a cold morning and as the sun rose, the winds got stronger. We decided to retreat for the morning and spend a few hours learning about Lightroom and Photoshop techniques before lunch.
Where does the time go, after an amazing time in Zion and Bryce, we were now down to our final sunset and sunrise. Our final sunset was enjoyed at Sunrise Point, I know it’s confusing, but bear with me. Sunrise Point is another point that offers the opportunity to photograph great light at both sunrise and sunset. We fought the cold weather again and got our shots at last light before returning to the warm retreat of Ruby’s Inn. Our focus shifted to our last sunrise, which would be at Inspiration Point, one of my favorite vantage points in the park for sunrise. Forecasts called for single digit temps and high winds, but we were determined to get some final shots of Bryce. Alarms woke us early and we trotted out to the point. Looking into the general area of the sunrise, we prepared our settings to capture a sun star and waited patiently for the light. Barely able to feel our fingers, the sun finally did rise and lit up the canyon. It was a beautiful moment and the perfect ending to our week long workshop in the canyons of Utah. Even though I’ve been to the area countless times, the scenes of southern Utah keep calling me back. I’m already looking forward to the Utah trips scheduled for next year.