Few landscapes are as dramatic as the United States’ southwest deserts. Bright reds, yellows, and even blues accent jagged peaks and badlands, creating a Martian-like terrain. And it was here, in this alien-looking landscape that Backcountry Journeys embarked on its maiden voyage into the desert at night. BCJ has been running trips into Zion National Park, Canyonlands, and Bryce Canyon for years, but this would be the inaugural expedition into this beautiful region where the primary objective was to photograph the night sky against the unique rock formations of Utah’s high desert.
First off, let me give a big salute to Matt Meisenheimer for his efforts in putting together this incredible trip and scouting out some of the best night sky photo locations I’d ever witnessed. And though he was not there with the second group and me, his insights were crucial to this trip’s success. And of course, a big thank you to our lovely clients who approached this trip with the kind of openness and enthusiasm that makes running photo workshops such a joy.
Over the span of six days, we sought out the darkest skies we could find to capture stunning images of the Milky Way and night sky. There were, as with any excursion into the natural world, some surprises. Ours were related to wintery conditions and snowstorms. But, we adapted and exploited these situations to enhance our photographic experience.
Zion National Park
The first leg of our trip began in Zion National Park. Springdale, Utah was our home base at the south end of the park. From here, it was easy to get to some of the best spots in the park for night photography.
Though Zion does suffer from some light pollution from the town of Springdale, the skies here are dark enough to make out the Milky Way with the naked eye. This meant that our cameras were really going to pick it up well.
Our first destination in Zion was an area that we took to calling the gnarly tree. It is in an area on the east side of the park, high up above the famous Zion Canyon. Here, striations and layering of the rocks create beautiful patterns perfect for use as foreground in our photos. And the gnarly tree sits atop one such rock formation directly in front of where the Milky Way would be rising early that first morning.
We departed our hotel by 4 am, arriving in the darkest part of the night and just as the Milky Way was making itself visible. With completely clear skies, the Milky Way was jumping off the screens of our cameras. And those wintry storms that had just passed left the landscape covered in a reflective layer of white, allowing the mountainous slopes to be seen clearly by our cameras. It was an absolutely perfect start to our trip.
That following evening, we moved on to capturing star trails in the valley along the Pa’rus trail. We arrived early enough to capture some sunset shots of the Watchman looming over the valley and then moved to our star trail position to grab a blue-hour foreground. Once the sky was dark enough, we set our intervalometers to GO and let our cameras capture 100 successive 30-second exposures of the night sky. These 100 images would later be stacked in Photoshop, which everyone learned in our last day’s intensive post-processing session, which I will talk about a bit later. After our first full day, we headed back to Springdale for some rest and an early start the next morning.
That next morning, we rose just before sunrise to catch the early morning light illuminating the rock formation knowns as Towers of the Virgin. Fluffy clouds lit up with the dawn light and the rocks glowed a soft orange, making for a picture-perfect sunrise. Afterward, we did a short walk back down the Pa’rus Trail for some early light photos of the Watchman and the Virgin River before heading back to town to pack and begin the next phase of our journey.
Kanab and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
By midday on our second full day of the tour, we were packed and heading out the east entrance of Zion National Park for the quaint desert town of Kanab, Utah. We would be spending three nights here and setting out from Kanab into the remote Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Known for its multi-hued badlands, slot canyons, and hoodoos, Escalante is the epitome of a strange but beautiful landscape.
This would be where mother nature would throw us her one and only curveball for the trip, as that night a strong winter storm moved in and covered the red desert sands in several inches of snow. But, this did not deter us from elevating our photography. Snowed and socked in that following morning, instead of going out to shoot, we held an impromptu post-processing workshop at our hotel, introducing everyone to the nuts and bolts of Adobe’s Lightroom Classic and Photoshop. This would prove to be a smart move, as it allowed for our final day’s post-processing session to be many times more effective at teaching some powerful and important photo editing techniques to our clients. Again, we will touch more on this in a moment.
Early the following morning, we would be setting out for one of our quintessential Milky Way shots at a location called Toadstool Hoodoos. I’d shared one of my images with the guests that I had taken there with our first group, and the shot quickly topped everyone’s lists for must-have shots. I’d been monitoring weather reports feverishly over the last few days, knowing that we had to have clear skies to make this shot work. And on the evening before, it looked like we would get a window.
So the following morning, at around 4 am, we headed out, bundled up and fingers crossed for clear skies. As we made the 40-minute drive to the trailhead and entered into a truly dark sky area, I could see clear skies and stars glistening overhead. It was going to work.
We made the short hike to the hoodoos, and the conditions were perfect. The Milky Way slashed the sky like a great painter’s brushstroke. We would get over an hour of total darkness before the dawn’s first light began to illuminate the sky, allowing us plenty of time to experiment with different camera positions and lighting angles. For the shots out here, we were permitted to use artificial light to illuminate the hoodoos, something that is not permitted within Zion National Park. The shots came out in stunning fashion, with several frames accented with the streak of meteors crashing into the earth’s atmosphere. It was a magical experience.
Over the course of the next day and a half, we chased the light of the setting and the rising sun in places like Paria Canyon and the badlands of Grand Staircase, but the coup de grace would come on our final evening out, as we headed to Big Water for our final night of star trails.
Matt and I had scouted our a large red butte surrounded by a strange bluish-gray sediment. From the gravel road, the peak was due north, giving it the perfect position for star trails. The last day out shooting also happened to coincide with St. Patrick’s Day. And the luck of the Irish was with us. Because even though clouds were moving in, they skirted the peak just enough to allow the stars to shine through. This would prove to be one of my favorite evenings of the trip, as well as resulting in one of my favorite shots.
The Final Day
This trip was a first in other ways too. It was the first in which the outing was paired with an intensive, five-hour post-processing session on the last day. This proved to be such a great experience for the clients, as we moved from basic Lightroom editing into putting together star trails in Photoshop, and many techniques in between. We also learned layering and blending of foregrounds.
All and all, this was one of the best trips I’ve had the pleasure to run, and with some of the best clients a photo guide could ask for. I, for one, hope the Night Skies of the Southwest becomes a regular departure on the BCJ schedule, and I’d be ecstatic to run it again!
Editor’s Note: Ben submitted some additional phenomenal images from his time co-leading the first session of this workshop. We thought we’d share those here […Read that trip report] .
Ben Blankenship was born in Nashville, Tennessee. As a young man, he studied ceramics and fine arts. In college, he pursued filmmaking, writing, and photography. After graduation, he worked for nearly a decade in broadcast television as a video editor, photographer, and cinematographer. Over the last several years, he has transitioned into working full-time as a photojournalist and travel photographer. He has worked abroad in Costa Rica, Belize, and Uganda. His photographic passions include wildlife, conservation, travel, events, and documenting social and political events around the world. His work has been published in the New York Times, The Oregonian Newspaper, and Photographers Without Borders. He currently splits his time between living in Costa Rica and Tennessee. See the most recent work on his website here: www.ben-blankenship.com