Mountains

Cedar Breaks Sunrise

Cedar Breaks Sunrise

Cedar Breaks National Monument lies peacefully under the subtle but brilliant colors of a Utah sunrise

I had seen Cedar Breaks National Monument on maps before and had been tempted to visit on prior trips to Zion National Park. Cedar Breaks is tantalizingly close to Zion but I had always been on my way further east to visit another of Southern Utah’s constellation of incredible state and national parks. Fortunately, we had actually built a visit to Cedar Breaks into our schedule this time and had scouted our shooting location the night before. As it turned out, I was really happy we had done so. The next morning turned out to be pretty cold and it was nice to know exactly where we would be setting up shop.

It doesn’t happen often, but in this case the best shooting location at sunrise was right at the visitors center in the principal overlook. We had a 270 degree view of Cedar Breaks and could quickly move from one angle to another. At one point I had a camera pointed due east and another looking almost west. Having two camera bodies and two tripods was a great luxury since this turned out to be a pretty epic sunrise and there were lots of shooting opportunities. As the sun rose closer to the horizon and eventually over, the view further down canyon and over to the distant mountains just got better and better.

As I normally do at sunrise and sunset, I was shooting series of three bracketed exposures. I may even have had to go to five shots separated by two stops for the first few series. There was quite a wide latitude of exposures needed to bring out shadow detail and not blow out the highlights of the clouds overhead. Eventually there was enough reflected light to drop to three shots and ultimately one exposure. I’m just happy that good technique and modern equipment allow me to capture these types of scenes. The camera simply can’t always capture what the eye can see without a bit of an assist in post-processing.

Cedar Breaks isn’t one of those places where I would recommend staying for a weeklong visit, but it’s definitely a place you don’t want to miss. I think our overnight stay in Cedar City with a chance to take in a sunset and sunrise was a reasonable amount of time there. I drove away appreciating our time there and ready for another visit in the future.

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The Road to Cedar Breaks

The Road to Cedar Breaks

The view along UT 14 as it winds its way up from Cedar City to Cedar Breaks National Monument

Since I visit the western US to shoot mostly during the fall, I’ve had the opportunity to see the aspens at peak fall color on several occasions. It’s always a magnificent experience. While planning this trip to Nevada, Utah, and Arizona, I hoped that our schedule, elevation, and an aspen forest would intersect at some point. While at Great Basin National Park, the aspen forest had already turned and shed its leaves. Even so, the park was fun to visit and beautiful.

But, as we headed southeast toward Cedar City, I hoped that a beautiful aspen forest at the peak of fall color would be visible along the way. About thirty minutes out from Cedar City I began to see the mountains rising in the distance. I *thought* I could see pops of yellow on the mountainsides but I convinced myself that it was simply the way the sun was hitting the mountains. As we got closer, though, it became obvious that the large patches of yellow and orange that we could see were actually huge aspen groves. Needless to say, I got pretty excited.

I became even more excited once we dropped off our bags and headed up the mountain from Cedar City to Cedar Breaks National Monument. While on prior trips to southern Utah I had heard of Cedar Breaks and its beauty but I had never visited. So, I was pretty stoked to pay it a visit. What I hadn’t anticipated was the amazing beauty of the road up the mountain. It was one of those drives where we were stopping at least once a mile, and sometimes more often, just to gape at the landscape. I had gone from no leaves on the aspen trees to grove after grove at the peak of their fall beauty. And, I hadn’t even made it to the main attraction yet!

This shot was taken during one of those stops. There was a county park where we parked the car and moved up and down the road for a while. I loved the way that he fence and the road led my eye into the mass of the aspen-covered mountain we had just driven past. The colors were amazing and there were even a few clouds in the sky to break up the otherwise perfect blue sky overhead. The scenery was so beautiful that we utterly enjoyed two or three trips up and down the mountain pass just so we could soak it all in. I hope this image conveys some sense of the beauty of the scene that we experienced.

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.

The Road to Big Sur

The Road to Big Sur

The last bit of straight road before hitting the bends and turns of the Pacific Coast Highway along the Big Sur coast

As we worked our way up the California coast, I was anxious to get to the twists and turns of CA-1 and the jaw-dropping views from high atop the cliffs of Big Sur. I had experienced the road a few times before and I was looking forward to seeing if it lived up to my high expectations.

Before we made it to the twisty bits, we came upon this view. Given my expectation of winding roads I hadn’t remembered this long straight stretch before we entered the coastal range. It was one of those “Wow! I’d better stop the car and capture this!” moments. I have quite a few of those as I’m out shooting. In fact, my favorite shots are often ones that I hadn’t visualized and catch me quite unawares.

So, I quickly pulled off the road, made a u-turn, and worked my way back to where I first saw the shot. I took a few different angles including these in the middle of the road. Fortunately, Pamela was there to act as my spotter. Otherwise I likely would have been so absorbed in taking the shot that I would have been struck by another photographer’s car as they soaked in the sights oblivious to my presence.

I love leading lines in my images. It doesn’t get much better than the yellow center stripe of a perfectly straight stretch of road with a scenic vista at the end. Hopefully, you will enjoy the image as well.

Summer’s First Sunrise

Summer's First Sunrise

The first sunrise after the summer solstice as viewed from Grandfather Mountain, NC

Most landscape and nature photographers will tell you that a significant portion of their best images are captured in the “golden hour”, the hour immediately after sunrise and before sunset. I’d actually stretch that definition to the golden two and a half hours. Most of the images that I come back to over and over were taken thirty minutes before sunrise until two hours after sunrise or two hours before sunset through thirty minutes after sunset. So, in any given day, I have five great hours to shoot and I’m filling in the gaps with other possibilities for the rest of the day.

That’s not so bad during the winter time when days are short. In the summer, though, there might be fifteen hours of daylight. That means that most of the day is filled with harsh, flat light. That’s why most photographers would tell you that they hope for partly cloudy to cloudy skies. In an ideal world I would have partly cloudy skies at sunrise and sunset and cloudy skies in between. That way I could use the rest of the day shooting with no harsh shadows and minimal contrast.

Fortunately for me on this trip I had a variety of conditions. On this day a front was moving through and I just hoped the sun would rise before the incoming clouds obscured the sunrise. I hoped that because I had scouted for quite a while to find just the right sunrise location. This shot was taken from the shoulder of the Blue Ridge Parkway not from a cleverly located pull-out. Unfortunately the Appalachians run from the southwest to the northeast in most of North Carolina. Since the sun was rising in the northeast at this time of year the mountains themselves generally obscure the sunrise. Searching for a location with a good northeasterly view that also was devoid of trees took quite a while.

When I arrived on location about an hour before sunrise I could only hope that cloud cover would give way long enough to actually see the sunrise. On this day exactly that happened. I pulled my car over to the side of the parkway, walked back a hundred yards or so to a clearing, and set my tripod and camera up. I could see the glow on the horizon but the clouds were thick enough that I couldn’t tell for sure exactly where on the horizon it would rise. I was pleasantly surprised when the perfectly round orb of the sun began to penetrate the otherwise dense cloud cover. The show didn’t last for long, but I took a series of images while it was visible. This is the best of those. I hope you get to enjoy the beauty of a sunrise in person sometime soon.

The Blue Ridge from Clingmans Dome

Blue Ridge from Clingmans Dome 1

The ridges and valleys of the mountains of western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee as viewed from Clingmans Dome at sunset

Blue Ridge from Clingmans Dome 2

The ridges and valleys of the mountains of western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee as viewed from Clingmans Dome at sunset

I’ve visited Clingmans Dome and posted images from there many times. So, for some of you this post might look familiar. But, I’m constantly drawn back to here because of the incredible variety of light and conditions that occurs here. I’ve shot these ridges many, many times. But, each time I view the images on my camera’s LCD screen or on my computer, I still find them beautiful and compelling.

So, there’s little story here. The sun was setting into a relatively cloud-free sky. In fact, the actual sunset was so far to the north that the mountain actually obscured the sunset itself. But, the golden light of the late afternoon and dusk sky silhouetted the ridges of the mountains beautifully. The contrast of the blue-black mountains and valleys with the pinks and oranges of the sky were as beautiful in person as they are in these images. I hope I’ve conveyed something of the majesty of the sunset from Clingmans Dome. Enjoy.

Sunset from Mortons Overlook

Sunset from Mortons Overlook

The view at sunset from Mortons Overlook in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Mortons Overlook is one of the few great sunset locations in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In the summer, it is probably the best location. During most of the rest of the year the sun is obscured by the mountains on the right and left of this image. During those parts of the year, the sunset is best viewed from Clingmans Dome or even the parking lot below Clingmans Dome. Since I was visiting in the summer and since I knew there was limited parking in the overlook, I arrived more than an hour before sunset to claim my spot.

It was a happening location the night I took this image. There was a family from West Virginia already sitting in their lounge chairs with their small tripods set up in a primo location. There was a two-man video crew from Nashville setting up their gear for a television commercial they were shooting for the state of Tennessee. So, I quickly grabbed a parking spot in the relatively small parking area and joined the group.

As always, it’s fun to shoot the breeze with other photographers about where they’re from, where they’ve visited, and what they have been shooting in the past few days. I struck up a conversation with the guys from Nashville passing on information about shooting conditions I had observed so far. They shared what they would be shooting over the next few days. We both helped each other a bit.

As the sun sunk lower on the horizon and the light started to get good, there was less conversation and more focus on capturing the scene unfolding before us. I won’t say that it was the best sunrise I’ve ever experienced, but it was certainly good if not great. There were enough clouds in the sky to create an interesting sky but not so many that the sun itself was obscured. Of course I’m always wishing for a sky full of red, pink, and orange clouds with the sun dropping through them. I didn’t get that but I did get the beautiful orb of the sun flanked by beautiful mountains in a sky glowing orange.

It was a fun night but now it was time to get to bed. The problem with shooting sunset in the summer is that the sun will rise a few very short hours later. I needed to get some rest to be ready for a – hopefully – epic sunrise the next day. Enjoy.

Late Spring View from Mortons Overlook

Late Spring View from Mortons Overlook

Sunset light floods the valley below Mortons Overlook in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

I try to visit the mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina at least a couple of times a year. Sometimes my other obligations impinge on that desire and I just can’t make it there as often as I would like. This year is shaping up to be one of those years where I won’t make it more than once.

Fortunately, I was able to head out for a few days in mid-June. The real objective of my trip was to revisit the rhododendron display on Roan Mountain. Last year I visited during the same window and the blooms were at their peak. This year – despite a long, cold winter – the blooms were early and well past their prime by the time I made it to Roan. But, I’ll get to that in a later post.

On my way up to Roan Mountain, I spent two days on the North Carolina side of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I normally stay on the Tennessee side but I decided to switch things up and stay on the North Carolina side in Cherokee. The primary reason for the switch was the easier access to the sunrise and sunset locations I would be visiting on this trip: Clingmans Dome, Oconaluftee Overlook, and Mortons Overlook. Both of the overlooks are a mile or less from Newfound Gap which is at the top of the mountains separating North Carolina and Tennessee.

I hadn’t visited the Smokies in the summer for a few years. Although the colors aren’t as dramatic as in the spring or fall, there are a few benefits to photographing in the summertime. The first is that the temperatures are pleasant. Instead of freezing at dawn or at dusk, I can wait for the light to develop while standing in my shirtsleeves. That is a treat! Secondly, there is at least one sunset location that is better in the summer than in the spring or fall. That’s where this shot was taken from – Mortons Overlook.

During the summer, the sun sets between the mountains into the V of the valley. This particular shot was taken well before sunset while the relatively bright light was flooding the valley below. I shot it handheld and exposed for the trees themselves. I like the ethereal feel of the shot and how the trees move from totally in shadow to being on the verge of over-exposed. The lush green of late spring/early summer is apparent in the color of the trees. It’s a simple shot but I like the way it turned out. I hope you do as well.