Utah is an interesting place to visit. Offering a wide variety of geology, ecology, human history, and socio-political views, this state is like no other.
The scenic landscapes of Utah’s portion of the Colorado Plateau are what had drawn our group of photographers to The Beehive State for this year’s Backcountry Journeys’ Canyons of Utah: Zion & Bryce photography tour.
We first gathered in St. George for an orientation meeting and dinner. Tops on our list of details to discuss were our plans to minimize our risk of exposure to COVID-19. Later that night we would all receive alerts on our phone that the Governor of Utah had declared a state of emergency due to rising COVID infection rates in the state. It’s not an adventure until something goes wrong…
The next morning, we departed early to make the drive to Zion National Park, with a stop for coffee and hot chocolate in Springdale. Our morning shoot was scheduled to be at the Towers of the Virgin, located behind the Human History Museum just inside the park. Low lying clouds and snow flurries made for difficult lighting and shooting the towering cliffs and peaks above. We made the best of what the scene had to offer but really had little light to work with, so we wrapped up the morning shoot and went to gear up at Zion Outfitters with canyoneering boots and waders for our hike up the Narrows. In spite of a guarantee from the employee distributing the gear that we would be “miserable” and have a “terrible time,” we chose to go through with our plans to hike the Narrows. This would require wading in the 35-degree water of the Virgin River, with the air temperature matching. But, our heat worked well and we were able to push forward up the Narrows. The low light made it easy to slow the shutters enough to create wonderful flowing water scenes, with some flashes of fall foliage still hanging around. We all enjoyed the chilly experience.
We returned our gear to Zion Outfitters, where perhaps the only unenjoyable part of the experience happened: releasing the “iron grip” the wader pants had around our ankles. Truly a water-tight fit. Zion Outfitters is cleverly located right next door to the Zion Brewpub, yum! So, we went in and warmed ourselves with Stout Stew, burgers, and fries. Following a quick check-in at the beautiful and cozy cabins at Zion Lodge, we proceeded to our sunset location along the Virgin River with the Watchman as our featured subject.
This is an iconic sandstone feature in Zion, and a staple for sunset, as it is one of the few main peaks that hold crepuscular light late into actual sunset. We arrived with some good clouds with hopes that they would hang around. Alas, they dissipated, but our scene stood strong with Cottonwood trees still in gold late-fall regalia and blue skies to contrast. The sunlight dissipating through the cottonwoods provided a perfect opportunity for everyone to learn how to produce a sun star effect.
With a successful first day’s shoot in the books, the crew enjoyed an extremely satisfying southwestern meal at Oscar’s Cafe before retiring to our cabins. Quite a creature comfort to have a fireplace at the foot of one’s bed after a chilly day in beautiful Zion Canyon.
We were able to sleep in, just a bit, on day three as our morning destination, Court of the Patriarchs was located less than a half-mile from our cabins. Named after three prominent fathers from the Old Testament, these three prominent sandstone peaks rise up from the canyon floor and offer fantastic views with the Virgin River in the foreground.
We began our shoot during blue hour at a perch high above the river with the patriarchs in the scene. After the colors in the clouds had finished their show, we moved to river level to watch the sunlight slowly cascade down the sandstone cliffs towards the river riffles below. The reflections of the cliffs in the water took on the appearance of liquid gold as it swirled downstream.
We wrapped up the shoot and took a short break before hiking to the lower and upper Emerald Pools. This 3-mile hike (round trip) offers some great views of the valley floor, the river, and stunning close-up views of the rising cliffs. We had a nice lunch at the upper pools and returned to our cabins for a short rest. Being adventurous, the crew drove through the Mt. Carmel Tunnel to East Zion.
This area of the park has a higher elevation, and the peaks hold the light a bit longer than Zion Canyon. We began by shooting the Cliffdiver in perfect light. This is a famous Piñon Pine tree that sprouts out of the top of a mini sandstone butte, arching, with its crown diving towards the rock below. We then drove and “chased the light,” eventually finding a spot where the cliffs held the light long enough for us to get some great shots of the deep reds and golds brought out in the surrounding peaks. With the light fading, we called it a night.
Our final morning in Zion began with a pre-dawn half-mile hike to the Canyon Overlook for our sunrise shoot. This location overlooks the Canyon with the Tower of The Virgin in the distance. We arrived early to beat the inevitable crowds. Arriving early afforded us the opportunity to carefully size up compositions including some foreground anchors to help show depth in this very large scene. It was a chilly morning, and the sun took a bit longer to break over some low-lying clouds on the horizon. When it did, however, the sun illuminated the canyon walls in the distance adding some color and warmth to the scene.
Once satisfied, and ready for the warmth of the vehicle, we hiked back to the parking area and moved on to shoot the iconic Checkerboard Mesa and a hike on the East Rim Trail. After lunch at the trailhead, we drove to Bryce Canyon. Upon arrival at Bryce, we got comfortable in our new hotel prior to our evening shoot.
Our sunset destination this evening was Sunrise Point. We arrived early enough to capture some late afternoon light on the amphitheaters of hoodoos that make up Bryce Canyon. Not a true “canyon” that was carved by a major river, these geological amphitheaters were slowly eroded by water runoff from higher elevations carving through soft upper layers of the Colorado Plateau, producing thousands of hoodoos for which Bryce is famous. Late afternoon light at Bryce is what you’re chasing, as the amphitheaters face to the east. As the sun drops, you hope for clouds and color. Unfortunately, this evening had little as far as clouds, so after we were satisfied with our take, we retired to Ruby’s Cowboy Room for dinner.
The next morning, we started out with sunrise at Sunset Point. With some clouds lingering, it made for a moodier scene. There were small flashes of color, but unfortunately nothing spectacular or dramatic, so we headed back to the hotel to change clothes for our hike on the Navajo Loop in the late morning. This is a great 1.3-mile hike through some of the most magnificent parts of the Park, offering great views of Thor’s Hammer, Two Bridges, and Wall Street.
After the hike, we had lunch at Ruby’s and took a short break at the hotel. The crew reconvened early that afternoon for a brief Lightroom tutorial on HDR and Panorama merging. Two easy, but valuable, tools to utilize, especially when photographing canyon country.
Bryce Point would be our Sunset shoot, and it would prove to be a chilly one, at that! Bryce Point is one of the farthest east points of the main amphitheater and offers the best angles in which to shoot directly into the sunset, as well as a wide variety of other scenes. Due to its exposure, the wind is almost always guaranteed. The crew held strong, though, shooting all the possibilities, keeping as warm as possible, and entertained by tales overheard from random fellow travelers.’ And just when we thought the show was over, wonderful deep reds and oranges lit up in the western skies.
With the heater blasting as high as possible, we eagerly made our way back to Ruby’s for dinner prior to braving the cold dark night at the hugely famous, Thor’s Hammer. As it turned out, temperatures were not too bad making for a very enjoyable evening shoot. Being a touch below the rim for the best angle at Thor’s Hammer protected us from the chilly wind above.
For our last shoot of the trip, we decided to give one last try at catching a sun star off Thor’s Hammer. Conditions the previous day had prevented a sunburst, but this second try paid off! With the final shoot wrapped up, we returned to the hotel for breakfast, checked out, packed up, and on the road back towards St. George.
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.”