No matter where I live now, or how many different spots around the globe I might lead photography tours for Backcountry Journeys, my home will always be Grand Canyon and the region in which it lies. I know Grand Canyon best. I’ve slept below its rim hundreds of nights, peering up at the stars above, and have hiked a thousand plus miles of its trails. This big ditch out in the middle of the high northern Arizona desert has a hold of my heart and I hope it never relinquishes.
Spanning the majority of the width of Arizona at its northern edge, Grand Canyon National Park encompasses 277 miles of the Colorado River and adjacent uplands. The park is home to much of the immense Grand Canyon itself, which is a mile deep at its deepest, and up to 18 miles wide at its widest. Exposed below are layered bands of colorful rock which reveal millions of years of geologic time.
This past July a fine group of 10 BCJ photographers, along with co-guides, Joey Hoff, Grant Ordelheide, and myself, set out to explore and photograph the Grand Canyon region during what I feel is its best: Monsoon season. We did so with high hopes and charged batteries, hoping for an electric time during our week-long adventure.
For Backcountry Journeys’ Southwest Monsoon: Grand Canyon Country photography tour, it’s much more than just Grand Canyon. It’s an exploration of a vast region of northern Arizona that encompasses a handful of the icons of the American southwest. All timed in order to give us a chance to see and photograph these spots in combination with the most ‘electric’ season on the calendar!
The group met in Flagstaff, Arizona, for an orientation presentation and meet ‘n’ greet dinner which we did at a carefully selected local favorite, Beaver Street Brewing. If the deluge of rain and crashing of thunder outside were any indication of what would be to come, our group of adventurous ‘lightning hunters’ where going to be in for a treat. Following consecutive years of horrendous monsoon, and by that I mean not much rain or lightning, the 2021 season had been fantastic so far producing record rainfall and daily events in the region we were set to explore.
This itinerary was slightly altered because Navajo Nation due to COVID had remained closed since late spring of 2020. As luck would have it, the reservation did reopen its parks system just prior to our trip, however, our alternative itinerary would remain mostly intact with the readdition of one major stopping point along the way (more on that later). So, instead of heading directly to Monument Valley as our normal itinerary would have us do, we would now first pay a visit to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. For our first morning together, we would photograph an interesting and unassuming spot just north of Flagstaff that turned out to be one of our group’s favorite of the trip as the atmosphere and weather cooperated in a way we don’t often see in northern Arizona.
Fog and low-level clouds settled into the valley here near the base of the towering San Francisco Peaks. This made for beautiful imagery of a lone Aspen tree growing by its lonesome in a large sprawling and otherwise empty field.
Whats more, we also had a “fogbow,” which is a rainbow of fog rather than that traditional colorful bow. Having lived in Flagstaff for 10 plus years, this was the first time I’d seen such a thing here.
Following breakfast and packing the vehicles, we pointed our caravan north and headed to Grand Canyon National Park’s South Rim. Here we were able to spend time strolling around a portion of the rim that afternoon, discussing the geology of the Canyon while achieving some nice photos as the mid-day light was quite nice as clouds provided a helping hand. Massive puffy white clouds are always a treat at Grand Canyon because its rare (outside of monsoon) that you get them. We sat and watched as the clouds cast shadows that slowly moved across the buttes, spires, and other rock features of the inner-canyon (a time-honored tradition here, by the way).
We were lodging this night inside the Park at the nearby Yavapai Lodge. We’d check in shortly after a wonderful lunch at the Park’s most prestigious hotel, the El Tovar. The El Tovar was built in 1905 just as the railroad also arrived at Grand Canyon spelling the real turning point from the area’s mining past to its tourism future. The hotel stands tall near the rim of the Canyon, a stark contrast as it was designed to resemble a Swiss hunting chalet as opposed to anything that would naturally belong here. Many considered it the most elegant hotel west of the Mississippi River, and in 1987, the hotel was designated a National Historic Landmark.
It was off to Desert View for our sunset shoot and we decided to take with us a picnic dinner so as to allow for as much time with the Canyon as possible, arriving early enough to watch the light soften while we hoped for appropriately placed lightning storms to pop up. While we did not get much in the way of storms, we did have a very nice sunset out at one of the Park’s more popular spots. It is at this spot on the southeastern corner of the Canyon that is home to the famed Watchtower, constructed in 1932 by architect, Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter.
Colter was first commissioned by the Fred Harvey Company in the early 1900’s. In a male-dominated world of architecture, she was able to make a colossal impact at Grand Canyon being responsible for not only for the Desert View Watchtower we were currently sizing up in our sunset images, but also the Hopi House, Lookout Studio, Bright Angel Lodge, and Hermit’s Rest at the South Rim, and Phantom Ranch, located at the bottom of the Canyon, among others over a 45 plus year career.
Differing from the El Tovar, the Desert View Watchtower looks the part of an Ancestral Puebloan watchtower. In true Colter style, it was designed to look as if it belonged where it sat, and that it had been there for many years, even though it was built using all the modern technology available such as concrete foundation and a stell framework.
Very few things can make the Grand Canyon even more grand. One of those things is weather. Monsoon season, which runs roughly July to mid-September, provides some of the best weather you might get at the Canyon.
One weather phenomenon that stands above most is an event that happens here on rare occasions called ‘cloud inversion.’ Cloud inversion happens when the normal temperature distribution of air – warm at the bottom, colder as you go up – becomes inverted or flipped upside down. This means you have a cold layer of air trapped at ground level, overlain by warm air. Inversion can create a situation where the Canyon is completely consumed by clouds. Sometimes, they pour into the canyon from the rim almost as if a giant waterfall.
On our second morning together, we were treated to just that! The “cloudfall” (we’ll call it) was happening just to our right and not all that far from us. As the sun rose higher and higher on the eastern horizon, it’s light cast across our little cloudfall, as well as upon the pale limestone rock wall behind it. This made for truly spectacular imagery and a fantastically unique way to tell the story of a summer Grand Canyon sunrise. I said if about the previous morning, but once again, in the years I’ve been in this region, which entailed more than my fair share of Canyon sunrises, this was the first time I’d seen quite such a thing. Even as I write this weeks later, I still sit in awe thinking about that morning.
The spectacle left our group sitting by the side of the Canyon for some time following sunrise, just talking and attempting to pick our jaws up off the ground. It was one of those moments when a place truly makes the impact you’re hoping it might. One you just don’t forget or let go of the “feels.”
The Grand Canyon would not be finished with us quite yet, but that mid-morning we hit the road again, off to Page, Arizona, and all of its special treats.
Page is a unique town. Developed mostly due to the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam, it remains pretty small, and slow, even with the unreal amount of visitation it now receives from spectators from around the globe. Page is the hub for a handful of wondrous locations: Antelope Canyon, Glen Canyon Dam, Lake Powell, Horseshoe Bend, and more.
After checking into our new hotel, we set out for an evening at one such icon. By now I think everyone in the world is familiar with Horseshoe Bend. When I moved to the region in 2011, Horseshoe Bend was marked only by a small brown sign with hikers depicted, and a dirt parking lot that didn’t look at all maintained. Heck, I drove by it on more than one occasion having no knowledge that one of the icons of the desert southwest was just up and over that unassuming hill alongside the highway.
It is not like that anymore. Social media has Horseshoe Bend firmly in its clutches and has been exposed to the world. As such, the area has been developed a great deal including a paved, paid parking lot paved paths, and more. Its not necessarily better, but it does lead to far more folks on a typical sunset. No matter, its still a spot that commands a visit if you are in the area.
For us, the crowds on this night were surprisingly not at all bad. What a treat!
For roughly five million years the Colorado River has carved the sandstone here at Horseshoe Bend, cutting a roughly 1,000 ft deep, 270º horseshoe-shaped bend in Glen Canyon. Spectacular as it is iconic. We did have some storms brewing off to the west, but they were far off and not positioned for us to utilize in a composition of the famous river meander. We did, however, have nice cloud interest in the sky that helped us come away with even and pleasant photographs.
With the re-opening of Navajo Nation, we were excited to be able to surprise our group with what became a true highlight of the trip: Antelope Canyon X was back on our itinerary, and wow was everyone glad that it was!
The only way to visit Antelope Canyon is by booking a tour with a Navajo guide service. Ours for today would be led by Taadidiin Tours, and we could not have been more impressed with our experience. Our tour leader, Jordan, and each and every person involved helped to make our time not just informative and memorable, but also extremely productive photographically speaking.
The photographs speak for themselves, but time spent deep inside these slot canyons is pure magic. A chance to witness how the colors of the 190 million-year-old Navajo Sandstone come to life with light is extraordinary. To touch the walls and feel the textures connects one to the earth. To imagine the brute force of nature and to consider the time it took to carve and sculpt these spellbinding slot canyons can provide perspective for those searching.
For this Monsoon/lightning photography trip we’re typically hoping to encounter storms producing sheets of rain, dark layered clouds and bolts of lightning. But not on this day. A slot canyon is one of the most dangerous places to be when a rain-producing storm is in the area. Our afternoon/evening adventure, too, is a spot where we’d prefer the storms to stay at bay.
We were hoping for no rain in the area on this day, and that is what we were getting. We thought it was a ‘go!’ for our evening shoot, but adventure awaited us!
We departed our hotel following lunch and a short break with plenty of time to spare in case we encountered anything unexpected during our anticipated wild and scenic backcountry adventure to Alstrom Point, which is a viewpoint overlooking Lake Powell that is only accessed by way of a long drive across the squishy dirt road that leads to a staircase-like climb up and over sandstone slick rock.
The area had seen torrential rainfall the previous week (more than even normal), and we knew that right near the beginning of the off-road portion of our drive there might be a natural roadblock in the way of a muddy river that could set our backup plan into action. Sure enough, we arrived to that ‘wash’ that is typically dry and passable and it was nowhere near passable. It didn’t take long to know we weren’t going to Alstrom. Our adventurous group, though, are excited to look at a spot in the area we knew of, yet hadn’t been prior. Folks wanted to give it a shot, so we did, knowing we had plenty of time if it didn’t work out to get to Toadstools, our actual backup plan if Alstrom couldn’t go.
The dirt road climbed a hill on the west side of the highway, just across from where we were turned back by the dry wash that was now a river of slick thick much that would certainly have swallowed up our vans if we had tried. This single lane road was dry, pretty smooth, and easy to drive at the beginning, but that didn’t last much longer than maybe the first mile. We started to get a little nervous about the undertaking. The vans likely could have made it further, but we didn’t know that for sure and in situations such as this “sure” is what we’re shooting for. And we were sure Toadstools would be excellent, so we decided to turn back. This entailed driving the vans slowly for about a mile, or so. In reverse! As Grant prepared to shift into reverse and navigate that single-lane dirt road he delivered what I would argue to be the quote of the trip:
“Give us three tries and we’ll get you to a good spot. Even if we have to back into it.”
The entire group got a laugh out of that self-deprecating zinger, and we were off to Toadstools following a near-flawless effort from both Grant and Joey maneuvering those vans backwards through the dust. Toadstools is a cool collection of odd rock formations, accessible by way of a short walk on a mostly flat dirt trail that eventually climbs to the top of a knoll where it opens into an otherworldly landscape of hoodoos, alcoves, and balanced rocks.
These “toadstools,” or hoodoos, form because Dakota Sandstone boulders perch atop pedestals of softer Entrada Sandstone. As the Entrada erodes away, the harder Dakota forms a cap, and leaves a rock column sheltered from water and wind. The Colorado Plateau, the large geologic region that is home to all of the locations we would visit on this tour, is full of incredible rock formations and geologic anomalies such as this one.
The geology of this area is a major reason why there exists today so many National Parks and other areas of interest. Think Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Zion, Capital Reef, Monument Valley, Antelope Canyon, Toadstools, Arches, Canyonlands and so much more. All of these incredible masterpieces of the natural world owe their existence to the sedimentary layers of rock here combined with the uplift of the Colorado Plateau. Geology rocks!
The following morning we shot Horseshoe Bend once again with the soft light of sunrise behind us, illuminating things differently than in evening when the sun is setting straight ahead.
Did someone mention Grand Canyon? North Rim? Lightning storms? Our destiny for the next few days. We once again packed up our vans and moved out of Page, on the road towards the North Rim. On the way we stopped for a quick “rim-to-rim” walk across historic Navajo Bridge (the only vehicle crossing of the Colorado River between the eastern edge and Hoover Dam, near Vegas), and an excellent lunch at Cliff Dweller’s Restaurant, a roadside accommodation in Marble Canyon that I, for one, never pass by without stopping for their fantastic fish ‘n’ chips, of all things.
The North Rim is a different experience than the South Rim, which “as the crow flies” is a mere 10 miles apart. There are two major reasons for the different experience. One, the natural environment is different because the rim is located at roughly 8,000 ft in elevation compared to 7,000 above sea level on the south side. This may seem like no big deal, but the change in life-zone is evident as one approaches. It’s cooler, there are fir and aspen trees to go with the ponderosa that are seen on the south side. Second, the North Rim is far from any major (or even sorta-major) city. It takes a LONG time to get there. And there is a lot less accommodations for folks. Thus, there are fewer tourists on the north side than on the south. It’s quieter here. It’s slower. Obviously this is subjective, but most folks find the north side flat out nicer. I have to agree that the North side is far better than the south. Shhh!! Don’t tell those 5 million + annual tourists who go to the south side. Let them go there!
Our accommodations on the North Rim are the best of this trip. We stay in small, rustic and unassuming cabins, that come complete with a front porch and wooden rocking chairs. If that isn’t good enough, these cabins are just a short stroll to the main lodge and the rim of the Canyon. I’d argue that one could visit the North Rim for a week, never leave their cabin & front porch, and still have a marvelous experience.
Not us, though. We are photographers and we’re on the hunt for lighting and monsoon storms, which were in the forecast once again. We’d stay flexible and design our days around heading to whatever vantage point would offer a view of a storm. Right from the moment we got there we had paydirt! We went straight to Point Imperial, which is the highest overlook in the park at 8,803 feet above sea level.
We shot a storm here that was safely across the canyon on the Marble Platform, which is exactly where you’d want a storm to be. This way, you are safe, dry and you have the storm directly behind your subject, the Canyon below. Find a composition, get lucky with a strike, and you have yourself a perfect Grand Canyon image. We shot the storm and canyon until the lightning tapered to a halt, which happened perfectly so that we could get to the lodge for check-in and our early dinner reservation at the dining room, which overlooks the Canyon through enormous glass windows, yet another thing you could do for a week without getting tired. The food was delicious and fancy, and we were able to conclude our day by walking to our sunset shot which took place out back spread out along the trail that runs along the rim.
The following morning we set off for Point Imperial again, as it is really one of the best morning vantage points anywhere in the park. Point Imperial overlooks the Painted Desert and the eastern end of Grand Canyon.
Here the canyon transforms as the narrow walls of Marble Canyon, visible only as a winding gash, open dramatically to become “grand.” The signature rock feature here, Mount Hayden, stands like a castle with a tower and acts as an outstanding component to a solid composition.
We photographed this spot until the sun had risen fully from the eastern horizon and rain began to softly fall. At this point, Grant looked around and yells out ‘Perfect conditions for a rainbow, people!’
Cameras once packaged up were quickly put back together and on tripods and like clockwork, 45-degrees from the sun, BAM. Rainbow over Grand Canyon! I’ve said it more than once before, but simply spectacular. The wonderful light conditions we were experiencing time and time again this week continued to get better.
We took a long break following breakfast, as I like to do for folks while at the North Rim. Typically on this tour we’re going pretty hard for nearly the entirety of the trip covering a lot of ground by vehicle, getting up early and staying up late. We even walk a fair amount. As a backpacking guide at Grand Canyon for 6+ years I have come to know that time spent quietly with the Canyon is an experience whose value is immeasurable, whether one knows it at the time or not. As such, I encourage folks to put the cameras down and just sit with the Canyon for a bit. Watch it come to life. Let it provide you with perspective, insight or even answers to life questions. The Canyon offers gifts specific to you and your experience, but you must spend time with it to hear it.
Mother nature returned in the early afternoon with a BOOM! An epic, slow-moving storm fixed on the south side produced a number of bolts and those dark sheets of rain. All photographable from the back patio of the lodge, which we could all walk to and join together for the excitement!
We shot this storm for what seemed like hours, until we needed to collect another ‘picnic dinner’ so that we could head out to our final sunset shoot for the trip.
Cape Royal provides a panorama up, down, and across the canyon with seemingly unlimited vistas to the east and west. The sweeping turn of the Colorado River at Unkar Delta below is framed through the natural arch of Angels Window. We could look back across the canyon to see our perch from our first night together over on the south side at Desert View. An enormous dust storm pushed into the Canyon just about on queue as we arrived, signifying a larger storm behind it. Perfect, we thought! But, we better be careful. As with each and every Backcountry Journeys’ tour, safety comes first. No trip, with the exception of our trips to photograph bears, has a greater need for attention to safety than one designed to photograph lightning storms. We plan, we have tools, and we have staying safe out front in every single decision we make.
This night put all that into action, no doubt. We got to the perfect spot to shoot a storm that was perfectly placed for us. We photographed. Click, click, click. ‘Did you get that one?!?!? Did I get that one?’ we’d exclaim randomly. ‘Look at that light!!’ ‘Look at that sheet of rain!’ ‘Did you hear THAT ONE?’
The storm shifted as they sometimes do. We monitored. Incredible light was being cast just beyond and to the right of Wotan’s Throne, a significant rock feature that is the subject in this particular shot. The storm went from sliding sideways to moving towards us. BOOM!!! Thunder from behind us! OK, then. Done. We got what we came for, and safety now dictated it was time to head back to our vehicles, if only to wait things out a bit. Upon returning, however, a flash flood watch for our area went into affect while the storms continued to build and move towards us from multiple angles. For anyone unfamiliar, Cape Royal is way out there on the Walhalla Plateau. It sticks out into the Canyon quite a bit more than most spots you can access with a car on pavement, and it is FAR from help. Potential for flooding was all I needed to hear, we were heading back. Safety first. This turned out to be the correct call. While nothing ended up flooding, the storms converged and completely socked in everything for the remainder of the evening. Some folks retired to their cabins to watch the events unfold from the comfy of their front porch, while others gathered together in the Sun Room at the lodge for wine and conversation. A toast to a trip filled with memories, new friendships and images galore.
Our final morning would have us once again perched on the edge of the Canyon sizing up the best ways to compose the complex and sweeping scenes Grand Canyon provides. The weather was beautiful and the sunrise glorious at Vista Encantada. Following our shoot, we ate breakfast and packed up to head back to Flagstaff.
But, there was one final stop.
While it is true that the village of Jacob Lake has no lake, it makes up for it by having arguably the world’s finest cookies. Jacob Lake is a small junction stopping point where there exists a handful of camping spots, a gas station and an inn. The cookies prepared with love at the Jacob Lake Inn really just might be the best in the world. If you have the time, I’d recommend stopping. No need to bring a boat, though.
Overall this trip was incredible. It stood out for the number of moments where we were blessed with truly unique light, but, mostly it stood out for how moving it was to have a group of 13 humans thoroughly enjoying each others’ company throughout the course of the week’s travels. We laughed with each other (ok, sometimes at each other), we learned with and from each other. And in the end it somehow felt meant to be just the way it was, whether or not we ‘backed into it all.’
Kenton Krueger has spent the past several years guiding backpackers, hikers, and photographers into the wild places of the American West such as Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier, Katmai, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Olympic, Redwood, Arches, and Canyonlands National Parks, as well as internationally in Costa Rica & Brazil. In addition to backpacking and camping, his adventures include rock climbing, exploring the slot canyons of southern Utah, mountain biking, and bagging 14ers in Colorado’s San Juan Mountain Mountain Range. Kenton is a trail runner, former pilot, and spent roughly five years writing and photographing for the award-winning Omaha World-Herald newspaper, out of his hometown, Omaha, Nebraska. Kenton looks forward to utilizing his years of trip leading and guiding experience, combined with his passion and experience behind the lens, to provide memorable and unforgettable experiences at the wild places we will visit together.
Don’t miss the next session of BCJ Live!
Bears Slideshow Presentation
with Russell Graves
Tuesday, November 2nd, 2021
11 am – 12 pm Mountain Time