Desert

Take the Long Way Home

Take the Long Way Home

A thirteen-mile long straight stretch of road in the Utah high desert

I’m showing my age a bit, but with apologies to 70s supergroup SuperTramp, I’ve titled this post after their famous song. I was actually in high school when it came out… It just seems appropriate given the length of the highway pictured stretching out seemingly to infinity.

As you might imagine the distance between population centers virtually anywhere in Nevada outside of Las Vegas is vast. It was not uncommon for us to drive stretches of highway where there was thirty, forty, or even fifty miles between towns. And, with few towns and relatively flat ground, the roads could be very, very straight. We finally started guessing how far it would be until we reached the next bend in the road and using the odometer to referee our guesses. As it turned out, parts of adjoining Utah were very similar.

This stretch of Utah state highway 21 was the longest stretch of straight road that we encountered. We started where the road disappears in the far distance and stopped just before a bend in the road immediately behind us in this image. That stretch of road was over thirteen miles long! While I was taking this series of shots, a car would appear and we would still literally have minutes to compose and shoot before the car came even remotely close to us. My only regret from this part of the trip was not having a supercar that we could have opened up to full throttle on these long, deserted stretches of road. Oh well. Maybe next time… Enjoy!

Great Basin National Park Sunset

Great Basin National Park Sunset

The late afternoon light filters through clouds hanging over Great Basin National Park at sunset

I’ve probably mentioned my friend Tom over the last few years. The way I describe our relationship is that he is a hiker who enjoys photography and I’m a photographer that reluctantly agrees to hike when necessary to get a great shot. Tom and I have been friends since I was in college at Georgia State and he was matriculating at Georgia Tech.

One of Tom’s bucket list items is to visit every national park in the United States. So, in the last few years we have fallen into a rhythm of taking trips that incorporate a national park that he (and in most cases, I) have not visited before. That was the case this past fall when we planned a trip to Nevada, Utah, and Arizona to visit Great Basin National Park followed by various other sites in those states. To be honest, I had no real desire to visit Great Basin, but after some research it certainly seemed worth a look.

I don’t know if GBNP is the least visited national park or not, but it is certainly on the low end of the list. I believe that it averages 100,000 visitors per year. It’s certainly in an out of the way location. GBNP is located almost exactly halfway between Las Vegas and Salt Lake City. Even more telling the road that runs to the east and north of the park is literally labeled The Loneliest Road in America on Google Maps. It’s the kind of place that you can go quite a while without seeing another person.

On our first night in the park, we set up hoping for an epic sunset looking west toward the horizon. Unfortunately, the spot we picked didn’t have a great view to the horizon. And, conditions weren’t shaping up for a blazing show in the west at sunset. However, as I looked back east, some low lying clouds caught the right amount of light and were briefly a fairly intense shade of pink. I captured this image looking out toward Utah over the Great Basin. It may be a desolate part of the world, but it is certainly beautiful in its own was as well. Enjoy.

Shadows and Light

Shadows and Light

Deep shadows contrast with walls lit by reflected light in this slot canyon in the desert Southwest

Here’s another image from the slot canyons of the desert Southwest. I could have named it any of a dozen titles, but the thing that is the most striking to me about this image is the beautiful contrast between shadow and light. What’s amazing is that the slot canyon was so dark that I had to use the in camera backlighting system in order to see the camera controls. Yet, the highlights here are nearly blown out. I would have thought there would have been much more light present than appears in this image.

This one was shot at ISO 100 at f/11 with a 1/2 second exposure. It took a while to figure out the right balance of exposure and aperture but I got it nailed down pretty well about halfway through. I used the Cloudy white balance control on site, but since I shoot RAW I can fine tune white balance after the fact in the computer. This is a pretty accurate rendition of the scene as I viewed it. I’ve got many, many more from this shoot, but I’ll only post a few more from there (unless you twist my arm really hard). Enjoy.

Into the Vortex

Into the Vortex

The view up and out of a slot canyon in northern Arizona

Once I knew we would be traveling to southern Utah and northern Arizona, I began making a location list of places I would like to shoot. High on that list was one or more of the numerous slot canyons in the region. Of course high on our list was the Virgin River Narrows which is basically a really big slot canyon with a river flowing through it. I had in mind slot canyons like Canyon X, Peekaboo, Upper and Lower Antelope Canyon, and the others that are found throughout the area.

The challenge with photographing these canyons is the amount of light available. We were traveling in the fall when the angle of the sun was relatively low on the horizon. Therefore, the amount of direct light making it into the canyons was diminished. So, we were working with long exposures and fairly dim light. However, we were able to capture some pretty cool shots nonetheless.

I’m sure there are some super secret and unexplored slot canyons in the region. Perhaps there are even some untried angles in the more popular and accessible slot canyons. I wasn’t really focusing on that, though. I just wanted to capture for myself some images of these incredible works of nature. I certainly enjoyed my time in the slots. I hope you enjoy viewing them as well.

Floating

Floating

A balloon floats serenely over the desert landscape near Page, Arizona

One of my favorite things about travel photography is encountering the unexpected. Now that is a bit odd since I’m pretty regimented and definitely prefer order and structure. But, I also am a slave to new, better, and different. So, when I’m traveling I’m constantly on the lookout for a photo opportunity that wasn’t on my shot list. In fact, some of all-time favorite images have come totally unexpectedly.

When we pulled into the parking lot of the hotel in which we were staying while in Page, Arizona, we noticed a pickup truck and an RV with ballooning gear loaded into trailers they were pulling. I immediately wondered if they were just passing through or if there was a balloon event scheduled for the area. Fortunately, the latter was the case. We began to ask around to find out when and where the ascent would occur. It was to be on the Saturday morning of our trip. That was great news because we had a window of time before we were scheduled to visit Lower Antelope Canyon. The balloon ascent could fit into our schedule.

After asking around we found out that the ascent would be shortly after dawn on Saturday morning. The next question became from where we could best view the event. Page isn’t a very big town so it didn’t take very long to pick some locations that might work. When we woke up an hour or so before sunrise on Saturday morning we headed for one of those spots. Before we arrived, we realized that many people were heading up to the top of a plateau near the middle of town. We just tagged along hoping a local would lead us to the best spot. We weaved our way through a neighborhood until the car ahead of us pulled to the curb. When a mom, dad, and two young kids emerged from the car, I thought we might be in the right place.

It turned out to be not only the right place but perhaps the absolute best place to view the ascent. We walked between some houses, across the local golf course, and out onto a series of rock ledges overlooking the desert and Lake Powell. Balloons were inflating directly below us and would soon be in the air. We had picked the right place.

If my memory serves me correctly, there were between thirty and forty balloons launched that beautiful, cool, fall morning. Many of them either rose initially just in front of us or crossed at our altitude as the winds swirled around Page. I shot with a telephoto lens and a teleconverter in order to fill the frame with as much color as possible. I took hundreds of images, but a few stand out to me. This one isolates the balloon from the power lines, buildings, and other balloons in the air. I like the way the early morning light casts a beautiful soft, side light on the balloon and the landscape. It must have been incredibly serene to float soundlessly above the desert. I hope I have conveyed that sense of serenity in this image. Enjoy.

Alien Landscape

Alien Landscape

The area around the Wave is just as alien and exotic as the Wave itself

Each time I visit the southern Utah and northern Arizona area, I come away with the same impression. There are parts of the region where I think I could blindfold a person, convince them they were on a spacecraft capable of warp speed, drop them off in say, Bryce Canyon or the area around the Wave, and ask them to tell me where in the universe they were. I’m not sure that many people would guess Earth given the landscape they would be experiencing. Some places are just that different from anywhere else on Earth I know of.

I knew that the Wave would be incredible. I had seen pictures of it. But, nothing prepared me for the variety of rock formations I saw approaching and around the Wave. Our guide encouraged us to hike above the Wave to another similar formation. Along the way, we encountered a variety of amazing rock formations. One looked like a hamburger complete with bun. Another looked like a series of ice cream cones. Others looked like brains on stems. All of these formations had a wide latitude of colors present. We were told that the colors in the sandstone were determined by how much iron oxide was present in each formation. We saw coppery green, vibrant red, orange, brown, and even black sandstone during our trip. I really didn’t know that the rocks could have that much variation in color.

This particular image was captured during our hike out of the Wave. We took a slightly different route out that put us on the ridge parallel to the Wave on the hike out. So, the image you see are the formations we hiked past earlier in the day. The Wave is contained in the midst of the features that look somewhat like inverted cones. I don’t know when I’ll get back out that way, but if I do I certainly would like to visit the area again. Enjoy.

More From The Wave

Wave Detail - Portrait

A portrait view of the incredible Wave formation in Coyote Buttes North region of northern Arizona/southern Utah

I know I posted an image of the Wave last time, but it’s just too beautiful to post only one image. So, here’s a few more and then I’ll move on. I could post tons of images, but I’ve come to appreciate these three over the last few months. The first image is simply a portrait version of the striation in the rock to form an abstract image. I’ve posted the horizontal version below. Lastly, I’ve included a view of the entrance area of the Wave shot back out into the desert through which we had trekked. I like the contrast of the eery formation of the Wave with the equally alien landscape beyond. The blue sky really was that blue. It was so blue that I just took off my polarizer for fear of making the beautiful sky look unnatural.

The Wave truly is a beautiful place. It’s hard to get to and hard to get permission to hike to. But, if you ever get a chance to go – just go. It’s worth it. Enjoy.

The Wave Entrance

A view from the Wave out to the landscape comprising the approach looking north

Wave Detail - Landscape

A landscape view of the incredible Wave formation in Coyote Buttes North region of northern Arizona/southern Utah

The Wave

The Wave

The surreal landscape of The Wave in Coyote Buttes on the border of Utah and Arizona

The hike to the Wave ended up being the central point in our entire excursion to the Utah/Arizona border region. As spectacular as all the other sights in the area may be, the Wave is the most difficult to visit legally. The Bureau of Land Management controls the real estate on which the Wave and the surrounding wilderness area are located. So, they set the rules for access there. The rules they have determined most suitable for access to the Wave is no more than twenty visitors per day.

Why twenty? I don’t know. But, twenty it is. Ten spots are given out in advance and ten spots are given out in a lottery each day for the following day. So, if you want to hike to Wave legally you need to apply in advance and be awarded a spot or show up and hope you win the lottery. The window for advance application is 120 days or less from the day you want to hike. So, 120 days out we applied for three different days and somehow won two spots for the Friday of our trip. No big deal, you might think. Well, some people have applied many, many times and not won a spot. Then, they show up at the BLM office and put their name in with thirty or forty others hoping to win a spot for the next day. There are lots of stories out there of people like us who have a limited window of time when they can hike and just don’t win a spot. Therefore, when we won a spot, we literally arranged our entire trip around our hike to the Wave.

One other influence on how we conducted our hike came around the time that we applied for our spots. Remember we were hiking in the fall of 2013. Our applications were being submitted in the summer of 2013. It turned out to be a pretty bad summer for hiking to the Wave in 2013. Three people died from heat exhaustion while hiking in the brutal heat of the summer. It turns out that when they call this a wilderness, they mean it. There are no markers to guide you. (Well, there is one rock cairn but it would be super easy to miss.) If you don’t know where you are going, it would be incredibly easy to miss the Wave altogether. It seems that ten or twenty percent of those who start the hike probably just give up in frustration and go back to the trailhead. In the heat of the summer, getting lost without adequate water could easily lead to heat stroke, heat exhaustion, dehydration, and even death.

Knowing all that, we hired a guide. It wasn’t cheap, but as it turned out, it was a really wise investment. I don’t know for certain that we would have gotten lost, but I can’t say for certain that we would have found the Wave either. It happened to be a great day to hike with temperatures in the fifties and sixties. So, I don’t think we would have become dehydrated or suffered from heat exhaustion. But, it wasn’t exactly obvious how to get to our destination. Having done it once, I could certainly get there again. I’m certainly glad we hired a guide for the day, though. The hike wasn’t overly long. Including one intentional detour on the way out we logged about eight miles.

The hike in was certainly worth the effort and the anticipation. I’ve never been anywhere remotely like the Wave. I honestly think you could drop most people down in the middle of that landscape and ask them where they were in the universe and many wouldn’t pick Earth! It’s that alien of a landscape. And it’s not just the Wave. The rock formations all around the area are just unbelievable. There are formations that look like hamburgers, brains, ice cream cones, and other wave-like scenes. It’s truly an incredible place to visit.

Interestingly, although the Wave is difficult to get permission to visit, it’s easy to photograph. We intentionally arrived mid-day when the Wave was in full sunlight. I missed the one classic shot of the Wave as a landscape oriented image in full sun. But, I like a lot of what I got. Also, it may appear that I have a polarizer on my lens because of the blueness of the sky. I didn’t though. The sky really was that blue. I suppose it’s the purity of the air in the desert. It’s truly beautiful. There’s more to come. Enjoy this for now.