Trip Report: Night Skies of the Southwest – March 2022 

Milky Way season is here! For the last few months, staring up into the night sky, I’d anxiously awaited the earth’s alignment with the core of our home galaxy. From Costa Rica to Fairbanks, I’d spent the winter months chasing macaws and northern lights and many things in between. But as March approached, it was finally time to venture out into the night and experience the magic of watching the Milky Way core light up the back of my camera screen.

Few types of photography are as immediately gratifying and equally mystifying as Milky Way photography. To the naked eye, even under the darkest of skies, the galaxy’s core appears as a soft haze in the sky, a belt of blue set against an infinitely starry sky. But, you crank the ISO up to 3200, set your shutter speed for 20 seconds, click the shutter release, and then like something from a dream, the galaxy’s true colors and depth are revealed to you on your camera’s screen.

It is an addiction. And a form of time travel. They say that if you want to slow down time, do a plank exercise and see how long you can hold it. The seconds will crawl past. But, if you want to speed time up, aim your camera skyward during Milky Way season and watch the beauty of our universe reveal itself to you in 20-second intervals, over and over again. Hours fly by. And soon, you’ll find the sky lightening as the rising sun wipes away the intense Magellanic clouds of the Milky Way’s core, leaving only a faint blue sky, devoid of stars. 

This spring, Backcountry Journeys made our Night Skies of the Southwest a permanent departure on our trip roster. It was initially dreamed up by BCJ guide Matt Meisenheimer as a special one-off domestic trip to compensate for the lack of international travel opportunities during the height of the pandemic. But, its success and popularity amongst the BCJ loyal have inspired the powers that be to make it a regular trip for us each spring as the Milky Way core comes into alignment. 

Few places in the world are better suited for astrophotography as the American southwest and specifically southern Utah. It is here where the skies are at their darkest, where little if any, light pollution can be seen. Add to that the dramatic rock formations and desert badlands of Utah’s southern reaches, and the stage is set for some truly dramatic night sky photography. 

This year, we ran two groups back to back, allowing for a small group size for each departure, ideal for teaching the techniques for capturing the Milky Way on camera. I also am a big fan of star trails, and it is something I always include in my night sky workshops. 

Our trip began in the town of St. George, Utah. From here, we would head into Zion National Park, then over the Glen Canyon on the Arizona border, and finish at the incomparable Bryce Canyon National Park. 

During the first week, with the first of the two groups, the weather took an unexpected turn for this time of year. Where it is usually quite dry and clear, mother nature turned on the cloud factory, making getting a clear look at the night sky quite challenging. But, this was certainly not the end of the world, as we were geared up and in one of the most beautiful desert landscapes in the world. As one does when the weather throws you a curve ball, you choke up, adjust your approach, and adapt your swing. So, for the first few days out with group one, we adapted our approach from heading out at 2 a.m. to shoot the Milky Way to chasing sunrises and sunsets, shooting scenarios in which clouds are all but necessary for a stunning photo. And we did make use of those clouds, as dramatic atmosphere and cloud bursts raced through our frames. We were also able to add in some great hikes to make up for the hiding stars. My favorite was Canyon Overlook in Zion National Park for sunrise one morning. Starting the hike in the dark early morning hours, we made the ascent with head torches lighting our way. By the time we were halfway up, the lights were no longer necessary, and when we reached the overlook, rays of the rising sun were punching through holes in the swirling clouds, creating some truly dramatic lighting against Zion’s red rock walls. 

As the week went on, our weather fortunes changed. By the time we’d made it to Glen Canyon, the clouds were not all gone, but thin and sparse enough to allow glimpses into the starry expanse beyond. Our week finished in Bryce Canyon National Park, which is, in my opinion, the most stunning of the three parks we visit on this trip. The enormous hoodoos, the orange and red rock towers that jut up from the canyon floor, make the most dramatic of foregrounds to set against a starry sky. And, as the rising sun slips over the canyon rim, the hoodoos glow bright orange as the light is bounced around from hoodoo to hoodoo, illuminating them from all angles. And, it was quite lucky too for group one, as the night sky finally emerged in full form, revealing the arc of the Milky Way stretched in parallel with the canyon rim. 

Group two would not experience the weather of group one. By the time we’d made the switch, the clouds were gone and not to be seen again for the duration of the trip. And so, our Night Skies of the Southwest trip went back to its normally programmed itinerary of all but sleepless nights spent under the incomprehensible beauty of the Milky Way’s glow. Every night, we’d venture out at around 2 a.m., and photograph the Milky Way until sunrise. Then. we’d do some work making use of early morning light before packing it in for the hotel and a long nap in preparation for the following night’s excursion. 

Both groups also had the added value of two lengthy post-processing workshops in which I demonstrated how to color correct for the Milky Way, to reveal it in its most splendid form, as well as compositing foregrounds, stacking for star trails, as well as some new noise removal tools to help deal with those pesky high ISO’s. 

Although for one of our groups, the trip had to be adapted to the whims of Mother Nature’s cloud lust, both groups left with some truly stunning images of the night sky, as well as some really beautiful daytime work. But, with the right technique and a little patience, it is hard to take a bad shot in the immense beauty of the American Southwest. 

Ben Blankenship








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 by Photographers Without Borders. He currently splits his time between living in Costa Rica and Tennessee. See his most recent work on his website here:

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