Upon arriving at our first shot location, we had a choice to make. A choice that could hinge the beginning of our week photographing together. This decision could set the tone, do we start well, or not so good? Do we shoot our original intended location, or move to a different spot?
Why could it matter? Well, we were treated to some really nice atmosphere as we entered Zion National Park on that early morning. Not the most common occurrence at this iconic southern Utah park. A situation any landscape photographer needs to take advantage. The spot we’d intended to photograph, Towers of the Virgin, appeared to be completely socked in by clouds, whereas just across the way features like The Watchman, and Bridge Mountain, could be seen peeking through the low clouds in the pre-dawn light.
Should we? What if the clouds break just a bit in front of the Towers? That’d be pure gold! What if they don’t and we get nothing? Tough call. One, as the trip leader, I had to make and wanted to make correctly. It was a gamble. We moved. And we were treated to the extraordinary atmosphere in the way of low-lying clouds, some color, and those towers peeking out above the moisture. Meanwhile, the Towers of the Virgin stayed socked in by clouds through the entirety of the morning. Lucky! Success.
Our ‘hiker’ version of the Backcountry Journeys classic itinerary, Canyons of Utah: Zion & Bryce began the evening prior with an orientation meeting and dinner in St. George, Utah. We meet in St. George ahead of our Zion & Bryce tours for ease of access as shuttles from Las Vegas, or flights into St. George are relatively easily arranged. Our group would consist of 5 photographers from all over. The states of Florida, California, Oklahoma, Colorado were all represented by our guests. New BCJ guide, Trevor LaClair, was also on board for his final “shadow.”
The group seemed to gel early, and that stood out to me more than most things about this particular trip. The wonderful dynamics of the group. We had a marvelous time together touring these two iconic Utah parks as well as learning new skills behind the lens.
Back to that first morning: following our sunrise shoot, we moved over to the Zion shuttle, which is the only way to enter the main Zion Canyon other than by walking or cycling. Entering the main canyon we noticed the low clouds that treated us to a wonderful sunrise were still there, sitting across the middle portions of most of the towering canyon walls.
Departing the shuttle at the Grotto stop, we accessed the Virgin River for scenes including the famous Angel’s Landing. This towering monolith of rock seemingly jets directly from the Virgin River, 1488 feet, towering over the valley. The low-hanging clouds continued to stick around, providing our small group of photographers a unique opportunity to photograph Angel’s Landing with some added “oomph.”
A trail traveling to the top of Angel’s Landing offers those up to the challenge an unrivaled view that can make the hairs on the back of your neck stand at attention. For the folks on BCJ’s hiker version of the Canyons of Utah itinerary, this was a worthy challenge, so we next took to the trail to hike it. Views from high above the valley are the reward for the effort, as well as a chance at getting a more intimate experience with a portion of the interior of the park itself. Things many visitors miss, like Walter’s Wiggles, which our group of hardy hikers will likely not soon forget.
Walter’s Wiggles is a series of steep switchbacks that serve as the final hurdle before reaching Scout’s Lookout, the ridge near the top of Angel’s Landing (we do not hike to the very top). 21 steep switchbacks, to be precise! The ‘Wiggles’ is named after Walter Ruesch, who was the first superintendent for Zion National Park and constructed them. Our group attempted to keep count as their intrepid guide can never recall just how many switches there are. They kept solid count without trouble, even while breathing hard.
Following our successful hike, one covering roughly 5.4 miles and 1,488 of elevation gain/loss, we made our way to Springdale, the small town that serves as an entry point for Zion, where we got checked in to our wonderful accommodations at the Holiday Inn Express and took a much-earned break/nap until dinner.
Dinner on both nights for us, while in Springdale, would be at the Bit ‘n’ Spur, one of BCJ’s favorite dinner spots conveniently located just across the street from our hotel. With so much change in Springdale, as the place has developed to accommodate the needs of an ever-increasing crowd of tourists, the Bit ‘n’ Spur remains a Springdale staple, having originally been a roadside bar in the 1970s. Since 1981 it has been a fantastic space for wonderful dining. We enjoyed our visits a lot. We were always accommodated well and treated to flavorful southwest fare. And delicious/needed libations.
To complete a busy first day, we set out early for sunset at a remote corner of Zion that most folks don’t visit. A roughly 45-minute drive from Springdale takes us to Kolob Canyon, and to an overlook of the magnificent geology exposed here that is perfect at sunset. What a dynamic evening as clouds to the west, as well as perfectly behind our subject made for glorious opportunities, even in the freezing cold and windy conditions we experienced!
The following morning provided a more classic desert morning: Crystal clear blue skies. We returned to photograph Towers of the Virgin, then once again boarded the Zion Shuttle to gain access to perhaps the most famous of Zion spots: The Narrows.
The hike into the Narrows begins at the Temple of Sinawava, a location named in honor of the Paiute Wolf God. It is also the final shuttle stop at the ‘end’ of Zion Canyon. The first mile is a paved boardwalk of sorts, traveling mostly right alongside the Virgin River as it digs deeper and deeper into what feels like a shrinking canyon. The walls getting taller and closer. After a mile of trail, it vanishes.
Where to now, one might ask? Well, the river is now our trail going forward, so we take to the river outfitted properly with our rented gear including dry waders, neoprene socks, and shoes that are just right for exploring these icy cold waters of the Virgin River, fed mostly by snowmelt from the plateaus high above. The dry waders keep us completely dry and warm, the neoprene socks and special shoes allow for a thin layer of water to fill up within, which becomes warm.
Hiking the Narrows can be a life-changing experience for many. It is the narrowest section of Zion Canyon, featuring walls thousands of feet tall and sometimes only 30 feet wide. Slowing down the flow of the river by practicing slower shutter speeds and using filters was at the top of most of our groups’ list of things to do. The colors of the walls, the squawk of the raven, the blue of the sky-high above stand out about this hike. Special, indeed.
Sunset on our final night at Zion would take place at the Watchman, another of Zion’s most famous landmarks. The evening sun drops from the sky casting a soft light upon this towering rock that seems to be watching over everyone as it stands high above Springdale, and the Virgin river below. Our images on this evening would incorporate the river as it bends slowly and calmly towards the rock. Fremont Cottonwood trees line the river alongside colorful rocks and pebbles making for a nice composition.
An early wake-up call, perhaps the earliest of the trip, would afford us the necessary time to drive and hike to Canyon Overlook for sunrise from a perch whose beauty is quite difficult to put into words. The trail itself is short and not particularly steep; elevation gain is somewhere around 100 feet between the parking lot and the viewpoint. From here, one can savor (or in our case, photograph) the entirety of the Pine Creek Valley West Temple, the Towers of the Virgins, the Streaked Wall, and the Beehives all make up part of this tremendous view. East Temple rises directly above the Overlook, towering more than 2,200 feet above the canyon floor. Great Arch lies recessed into the cliff-face below the Overlook, carving its way through the eons into the solid sandstone. It was a simply amazing morning, and a wonderful way to say goodbye to Zion.
But, not before eating at the famous and beloved Oscar’s Cafe! Oscar’s is a staple and must-do on every BCJ tour that visits Zion. Can you tell we love food? On this occasion, we stopped by Oscar’s just as breakfast was coming to an end and lunch was about to begin. This was fortuitous because our group split down the middle as to who was interested in breakfast foods, and who wanted burgers and burritos. We stayed at Oscar’s for a while, dining and just enjoying the perfect desert weather. Following this, we began our journey towards Bryce Canyon and the next portion of our adventures.
Bryce Canyon lies roughly 2 hours to the northeast of Zion, yet seemingly a world away. Situated at between 7,000 and 9,000 feet in elevation, on the edge of the Paunsaugunt Plateau, the pink, orange, and chalk colored hoodoos that make Bryce world-famous lye inside a large amphitheater visible from several viewpoints along the rim, and from below via a series of trails that weave through the haunting rock towers, grottos, fins, arches, and spires. We would pay a visit to a number of viewpoints and hike amongst “a horrible place to lose a cow,” as it was famously said by Ebeneezer Bryce, the man whom the park is named after.
Sunset on our first evening here would be at one of Bryce’s best overlooks: Bryce Point. From this vantage point, one can see into perhaps the best part of the hoodoo amphitheater, as well as across the valley to the highest point on the Colorado Plateau, the Aquarius Plateau.
The light during the late afternoon and at sunset at Bryce is good, yet due to its position, sunrise is best for landscape photography of the hoodoos. Our first sunrise, the following morning, would be from my favorite viewpoint in the Park; Inspiration Point. Peering down into and across the hoodoos from this spot provides possibly the best compositions of any view in the Park.
The hoodoos line up well here, and an enormous portion is within the view of a wide-angle lens. Mornings at Bryce provide excellent opportunities to create sun stars as the sun breaches the horizon, as well as panoramas and even isolated scenes utilizing a telephoto lens. So, there is a LOT to do here!
Following a quick breakfast, we took to the trail for another ambitious hike. We hiked the Navajo Loop – Queens Garden trails descending into the depths of the amphitheater which provided us a much more personal look at the rock features, and also a fantastic workout as we climbed back to the rim from far below.
A delicious lunch at IDK Barbeque in the neighboring town of Tropic, Utah, was a nice surprise as BBQ isn’t usually thought of as ‘great foods you’ll find in Utah.’
Our final sunrise shot would provide us with maybe our best skies of the trip. Prior to sunrise was phenomenal. Purple and magenta clouds streaked across the sky. What was left of the clouds and color was perfectly placed for our final shot location, the hugely famous Thor’s Hammer. This hoodoo looks exactly as its name describes; like a big hammer. Its situated a couple of switchbacks down the Navajo Loop Trail, and is perfect for sunrise when there is color and clouds in the sky.
That is exactly what we had. A perfect ending to a wonderful trip to Zion & Bryce Canyon in southern Utah. Let’s do it again soon!
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.