There is no getting around it: southern Utah has some of the most spectacular scenery in the United States. From Moab to Escalante, there is so much beautiful country to explore. Among the endless desert landscapes, there are five National Parks.
These parks are all relatively close and each boasts a unique landscape, making them prime destinations for travelers. Zion, arguably the most iconic of the parks, rose to the third most visited National Park in the nation (in the last non-pandemic year). This of course means that travel during peak months can be busy and hectic. The parks have done a great job of dealing with the crowds, but parks all across the country are as busy as they have ever been. That doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to enjoy the solitude of these great places, however. Winter is the best time of year to beat the crowds and enjoy these parks at a slower pace. That’s exactly what our Backcountry Journeys group intended to do for a week of shooting Zion and Bryce in February.
We all met in St. George and I was excited to learn that our small group had either never been to Zion or Bryce, or had visited briefly many years ago. I love when it works out that way because it is always exciting to visit the parks with someone who is seeing them in person for the first time. After a great meal in town, we all turned in early so we would be well-rested for the pre-dawn departure. Unfortunately, a rogue oven in the hotel’s kitchen decided to set off the fire alarm in the middle of the night and deprive us of our beauty sleep. Non the less, we convened in the morning excited and ready to start the trip, even if we were a little groggy.
Sunrise was beautiful in Zion. We shot the iconic Towers of the Virgin, one of the first great views that greet you as you enter the park. We worked the scene, shooting away as the sun crept down the cliffs. As we made our way around the park after sunrise, I was immediately struck by how few people were around.
This time of year, the shuttles do not run, so you can drive a private vehicle all the way up the canyon to the Temple of Sinawava… which we promptly did. The convenience of being able to drive and park wherever we wanted really helped us to maximize our shooting time in the field.
While the temperatures were cold in the morning and evening, there was no getting around the fact that it hadn’t snowed in Zion Canyon in quite a while. Although there wasn’t much snow on the ground, the creeks were frozen and the angle of light was low. There was still lots and lots of beautiful scenery to be captured.
Our group did a great job of adjusting to the conditions and finding ways to make stunning winter images without snow. Kudos to them!
One highlight for us was shooting along the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway traverses through the high country of Zion. It is always a gamble shooting along this road as there are few places to park, but with the thin winter crowds, we were able to take our time and shoot our way across the high country. After several stops along the way, we finally reached our sunset destination, a small bonsai tree growing out of a rock pedestal. This area is rich in subjects. Along with the tree, there are lots of serrated Navajo sandstone and a butte that towers above. We arrived in crystal clear blue skies, and within minutes clouds began to develop. Soon it was overcast and we weren’t sure what was going to happen. We watched closely and hoped that sunset would materialize. Sure enough, right on cue, the sun dropped below the dark clouds and illuminated the peaks above us. It was a beautiful scene and one we were happy to be photographing.
As we wrapped up our time in Zion, we excitedly turned our attention to Bryce Canyon National Park where we would spend the rest of the trip. Bryce is a smaller park but boasts big views. The Bryce Amphitheater is an incredible geological formation filled with the iconic orange hoodoo rock towers.
Like so many photographers before us, our first reaction after looking over the canyon rim was: “How do I capture this”. That feeling is expected with such overwhelming subject matter all around you. We took some time to identify what it was we wanted to convey and we were off! From tight shots with a telephoto to wide-angle grand landscapes, our shutters were flying. For the next two days, the temperatures were cold but our spirits were high as we worked our way around the amphitheater’s rim photographing the hoodoos from different angles.
During the day, we did an in-depth image review. I find that group image critiques are very educational and are one of the best ways to improve as a photographer. It is always inspiring to see how others interpreted the same scene I was looking at. It amazes me how you can have a group of photographers in the same general area, and yet, more often than not, we see and photograph things very differently. I always leave critiques ready to try and view the landscape differently.
On the last morning, we were up early to photograph the pre-dawn glow at Bryce Point. This is one of the best viewpoints of the park and a great place for a final shoot. It was the coldest morning yet, so we sat for a few minutes soaking up as much heat from the car as we could. As we bundled up to head into the cold, I told the group that “We must suffer for our art.”
As we watched the sun come up and illuminate the hoodoos below us, I think we could all agree that being in Bryce, photographing this moment, was the last thing from suffering.
Grant Ordelheide is a Montana-based outdoor and adventure photographer. Growing up in the Colorado Rockies, in a family that explored and played in the outdoors at every opportunity, instilled in him a profound reverence for the landscape. Grant’s love of nature and wild places preceded his love of photography, which emerged as a natural extension and by-product of his adventures in the mountains as an avid backpacker, climber, and snowboarder.
Following his passion, Grant earned a Bachelor’s degree in photography with an emphasis in business from Pacific Union College in California’s Napa Valley. In 2016, Grant was a recipient of the Art Wolfe Next Generation Photographer Grant organized by Luminous Landscape. His work has won numerous awards, including one of the top honors in the U.S. Landscape Photographer of the Year contest. His photos have been published in National Geographic Traveler, Backpacker, Outside, Climbing, The New York Times, The Yosemite Journal, and many other print and online publications. Grant’s fine art prints hang in gallery, corporate, and private collections across the country.
For several years, Grant has shared his eye, expertise, and contagious passion for photographing the outdoors, teaching photography workshops throughout the country. Grant currently resides in Columbia Falls, Montana with his wife Alexis. His work can be viewed at grantordelheide.com.