When you first visit Zion National Park, it becomes immediately obvious why it was Utah’s first national park. The massive sandstone canyon is filled with amazing views, unique plants and animals, and some of the best hiking in the country.
It is also no surprise that this park has exploded with popularity over the last few years, climbing to the third most visited park in the country. Most of those 3.8 million visitors come in the summer months, with crowds thinning out as fall comes around. As autumn arrives in Zion, it brings a different type of migration. A migration of glass. Photographers come to the valley to photograph the brilliant maples and cottonwood trees as they put on their fall colors against the red sandstone.
It was here that Backcountry Journeys joined this “migration of glass,” finding ourselves at Zion and Bryce, eager to see the canyons and photograph them in all of their autumn splendor.
We had two groups, a ‘standard’ and a ‘hiker,’ on back-to-back trips this year. No one in either group had been to either park prior. I love when it works out that way because it is exciting to see the parks through fresh eyes. I love seeing jaws drop when arriving at Zion Canyon or looking out over the amphitheater at Bryce.
Our trips began in St. George Utah, a fast-growing city a little over a hundred miles from Las Vegas. We woke up early so that we could get up to Zion before sunrise. The drive through the darkness seemingly transported us instantly from a busy city to the wilderness of Zion National Park. We watched as the Towers of the Virgin slowly started to glow as the sun rose to the east. I think we all agreed, this was going to be an awesome trip.
Our accommodations were at the iconic Zion Lodge inside the park. We stayed in the historic cabins among the cottonwoods halfway up the canyon. Staying here provides a unique experience and gets us a jump start on all of our photography locations. It is also pretty cool to sit on your cabin’s deck and just stare up at the canyon walls.
After the standard group’s first full day in the Canyon, we all settled back into our cabins and fell asleep to something unusual. The sound of rain. While Zion gets its fair share of precipitation, it is far from the Pacific Northwest. We went to sleep hoping that this weather would provide us with some unique conditions for the morning. When my alarm went off early the next day, the first thing I heard was the sound of rain on the cabin roof. Dang, it. The forecast was supposed to improve, but when we met at the van, it was still raining and it seemed like it wasn’t going to be a productive morning for photography. Still, we put on our rain gear and persevered with our original plan. As we approached the location, I could just make out some low-hanging clouds and silhouettes of the peaks we were going to shoot. Wait a minute, I thought, are those stars? Our moods quickly shifted from pessimism to optimism as we realized this storm was clearing.
For the next couple of hours, we joyfully photographed the Court of the Patriarchs as the clouds swirled around the cliffs high above the river. We were all glad we didn’t succumb to the temptation of going back to bed that morning!
The next group had equally awesome conditions: perfectly clear skies! Now, typically we photographers crave storms and cloudy skies because that drama is where the magic is. But our hiking group was praying for clear skies. We wanted a cloudless sky because that would give us the best light deep in The Narrows, the narrowest part of Zion Canyon, and one of the premier hikes in the country. The hike up The Narrows follows the North Fork of the Virgin River as it cuts through the thousand-foot walls sometimes just twenty to thirty feet apart.
Due to the nature of the canyon, this means you are mostly hiking up the river itself. We were prepared for the cold water with waders, canyoneering boots, neoprene socks, and a walking stick for balance in the current. Hiking up a river is challenging, but maybe even the bigger challenge is not stopping to take a picture every thirty feet. The views in The Narrows are spectacular, the light is always changing, and you never know what is around each bend.
Time flies in the canyon and when it was all said and done, we had hiked close to eight miles and spent about six hours wading through the river. It was an experience that I don’t think any of us will forget anytime soon!
As our groups finished the Zion portion of the trip, we began to look ahead to Bryce. Bryce Canyon National Park is a small park high on the Colorado Plateau. The crown jewel of the park is the Bryce Amphitheater, a huge depression featuring thousands of rock spires called hoodoos. These geologic features are formed by the uplifting of Tectonic plates and erosion from freezing water. The Bryce hoodoos are a photographer’s dream. Not only are they visually unique, but their warm colors are only enhanced by the rising and setting sun, providing lots of interesting photo opportunities.
Our groups worked the canyon from all the different viewpoints. Shooting everything from wide-angle scenics to tight detail shots with our telephoto lenses. At sunset, we watched as the Earth’s shadow formed high over the Colorado Plateau, and in the morning we marveled as the sun made the backlit hoodoos look like a series of glowing candles.
The hiking group took off down the steep trails to the bottom of the amphitheater. We all agreed that standing amongst the hoodoos provided a scale and context that we were missing from the rim. We worked our way all around the bottom of the amphitheater, slowly climbing our way back up to the rim. We were in no rush as photo opportunities seemed to present themselves with every twist of the trail.
We left Zion and Bryce with full memory cards and wonderful experiences. Fellow guide Alex Hansen and I agreed that it is always fun to travel with like-minded people and these groups were a pleasure to explore the desert with. It was a great few weeks in canyon country and I can’t wait for more!
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.