National Park

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.

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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.

Cottonwood and Zion Canyon Walls

Cottonwood and Zion Canyon Walls

Cottonwood trees and the walls of Zion Canyon glow in the mid-morning light of a beautiful fall day

As I worked my way along the Virgin River in the Big Bend area of the park, I was looking for details – images that would be beautiful even outside the context of Zion. However, I found myself immersed in the overall beauty of the area through which I was hiking. The red sandstone walls, the blue-green water of the Virgin River, the yellowish-gold cottonwood trees along the river, the multi-colored pebbles in the bed of the river, and a hundred other hues had captivated my attention.

So, I began to look for an angle that could convey the beauty of my surroundings in a more holistic way. Eventually, I came upon this spot. I passed by it on my way down and back up the river thinking I would find another angle. Finally, though, I camped out here for a few minutes seeing if I could capture the essence of this beautiful place with these elements.

The image isn’t perfect. I haven’t quite captured the glow of the canyon walls as I recall them in my mind’s eye. And the angle I’ve chosen probably doesn’t convey the enormity and height of the walls. However, it’s still a nice image and certainly represents Zion well. I hope you enjoy the image. There’s more to come.

Big Bend of Zion Canyon

Big Bend of Zion Canyon

The Big Bend section of Zion National Park is named for a large bend in the Virgin River

I suppose it’s obvious by now from the images that I’ve shared that the Virgin River is an integral part of the geography of Zion National Park. This image is another example of the river and its interaction with the land.

As the Virgin River enters the relatively wide Zion Canyon, the river flows through its normal channel. I say normal because when at flood stage, virtually the entire canyon becomes the channel for the Virgin River. There are signs posted in spots around the canyon that indicate how high the river has risen in the past. Then there are the huge boulders that appear as if randomly placed there, but are more evidence of how powerful the flow must be when the river is raging.

On most days, the river sticks to its banks, though. On those days, you can walk the banks of the rivers roaming out of thickets of brush and through groves of cottonwood trees. On one of those excursions, I came upon this scene. A fallen tree has been bleached to a grayish white tone. The tree stands in stark contrast to the fall foliage of the cottonwood trees, the green foliage of the pine trees, and the red sandstone of the canyon walls. This scene is yet another example of why I love to visit Zion any time of the year, but especially in the fall. Enjoy.

Bend in the Virgin River

Bend in the Virgin River

Cottonwood trees line the Virgin River as it exits the Narrows and flows into Zion Canyon

As we exited the Narrows and began the hike back downstream, the trail followed the Virgin River for a while. We had been in such a hurry to make it into the Narrows that we hadn’t taken the time to stop along the way in. Now that we were out before sunset, we stopped a few times to soak in the incredible beauty of the Virgin River deep in Zion Canyon. This shot was taken during one of those stops. The shot is a single exposure of 2.5 seconds shot at f/14 in order to capture the depth of field necessary to keep the river and surrounding cottonwoods in focus. Perhaps it would have been more beautiful deep in the Narrows, but it is still a nice capture of beautiful Zion Canyon. Enjoy.

The Virgin River in Fall

The Virgin Narrows in Fall

Cottonwood trees at the peak of their fall color in the Virgin Narrows in Zion National Park

This isn’t the shot I had in mind when I entered the Narrows, but it is the best of the ones I took during the hike upriver. I had hoped to get far enough upstream to see where the canyon walls plunge directly into the river with virtually no sandbars or shoals in the shot. But, the elements and the beautiful scenery conspired against me to keep me from making that far into the Narrows.

As it turned out, the water was at least as cold as I had feared but turned out to be bearable. Bearable, that is, if feet just short of frostbite was my expectation. The good news was that there were frequently spots like this where we could get out of the water to allow our feet to warm a bit. The problem with that strategy was that it cut down on our travel distance considerably. The other good news, bad news of the day was that each of the stops also presented another beautiful bend in the river that begged to be photographed. This, too, cut down on the length of our hike.

I think we made it into the river about noon and sun set that day close to 6:00. That meant that we had to turn back about 3:00 or risk making our way back downstream in the dark. When I say dark, I mean the kind of dark where you can’t see your hand in front of your face. Navigating the Narrows in the dark with slippery footing and wading in ice-cold water would have been a recipe for disaster. So, even though better scenes certainly laid in waiting just around the next bend, we wisely turned around near 3:00.

That did leave some time for making images on the way out, though. I had noticed this scene on the way in and snapped a few frames of it. However, using the long exposure I wanted to render the water silky allowed the wind to move the trees and cause blurring in the leaves. I stopped on the way out to shoot the same scene with a bit less wind. If you look at the top of the big cottonwood and at some of the vegetation on the left side of the frame you can see some movement even in this shot.

To get the depth of field I needed to yield sharp focus from foreground to background, I used an aperture of f/18. With the shade and dark walls shooting at ISO 100 I needed an exposure of two seconds. I like results, but I do wish I could have made the wind calm totally for the duration of the exposure. Oh well, that just means I need to go back again with a bit warmer conditions and hike a couple more miles back into the Narrows. It may have to be next year so my feet will look forward to the trip as much as the rest of me will! Enjoy.

Virgin River Detail

Virgin River Detail

A small section of rapids on the Virgin River in Zion National Park

After waiting a few hours until mid-morning, the air temperature finally began to warm and the sun broke through the clouds. Before then, the thought of wading up the Virgin River seemed a bit preposterous. Truth be told, even with the slightly warmer temperatures, there wouldn’t be that many people making their way up the river on this chilly early November day.

We had held many discussions about the best way to dress for the hike up the Narrows. We contemplated renting the specialty pants and shoes provided by the local outfitters. But after considering it, we both agreed that the temperatures should still be warm enough to just use old shoes and normal hiking pants. We both agreed that our shoes would be preferable to the specialty shoes made for the slick river rocks.

So, loaded down with tripods, cameras in dry sacks, and light packs holding food and water, we began our trek up the Narrows. It was immediately obvious that the river was colder than I had anticipated. The good news was that my footwear choice was sound in regard to footing and my walking sticks gave me a stable platform. The river flow was moderate and rarely more than knee-deep. But, it was cold – numbing cold.

I don’t know how long we would have been able to stay in the river if it weren’t for the occasional shoals that were just above the water level. Even though direct sunlight was rare, the flats allowed us to have the water drain from our shoes and feel the dry, relatively warmer air temperatures.

Frankly, I had hoped that we would be able to move further back in the Narrows than we actually made it. We didn’t quite make it to the sections that I had envisioned. I have seen shots of the Narrows where the canyon walls are nearly vertical and the vegetation is minimal if nonexistent. The section we hiked was certainly nearly vertical, but there was much more vegetation than I had anticipated.

Still, I like some of the shots that I brought back out. This one is simply a section of the river where it flows over some of the smooth, round river rocks creating a small section of whitewater. The contrast of the turquoise water with the canyon face is simply beautiful. And, this shot gives the reader a good idea of the type of terrain involved in the hike.

I’ll post a couple more shots from the Narrows, but I’m already looking forward to heading back and hiking a mile or two further upstream. The Virgin Narrows is truly a unique and beautiful spot on planet Earth.

Fall in Zion Canyon

Fall in Zion Canyon

Late morning sunlight creates an explosion of color on this cotton at its peak of fall color change

The real destination on this day was a hike up the Virgin Narrows. But, the day had dawned cloudy and cold and we were waiting for warmer weather. The water we would be hiking in later this day would be in the low fifties at best and possibly only in the forties. We at least wanted the air temperature to be warmer than the water!

So, as we waited for the promised clearing skies, we found other sights to see and images to shoot. Strangely enough, this shot was taken from the parking lot of the visitors center looking up to the peaks above. If there was any doubt if the cottonwoods were at peak color or not, this scene demonstrated that peak was at hand.

I shot several versions of this image, but like this one the best. This image is virtually straight out of the color. There is no saturation increase, only a bit of contrast added, some recovery of highlights made, and a very modest tone curve added. The colors really were this vibrant. That’s what drew my eye to the shot.

Zion National Park at the peak of fall color is truly one of the most beautiful places on this earth. I hope you enjoy the scene. I certainly enjoyed capturing it.

El Capitan

El Capitan

El Capitan as viewed from the banks of the Merced River framed by two incense cedar trees

My wife, Pamela, and I have been going through my library recently to select images for an artwork project in our house. I’m fairly meticulous about tagging and rating my images so I at least have most of my best images rated as four or five stars. However, as we dug a bit deeper we found a few images that hadn’t made the initial cut but seemed worthy of further processing. This is one of those images.

On a family vacation back in 2006, we were fortunate enough to visit incomparably beautiful Yosemite National Park. We have family who live on the central California coast whom we had visited and then made our way over to Yosemite for a few days. What a few days it was too!

We arrived in what is early summer in the South but was still very much early to mid-spring in Yosemite. In early June of 2006, the Tioga road was still closed and wouldn’t open until mid-June well after our visit had ended. Although I would have very much enjoyed seeing the entirety of Yosemite, the heavy snowfall that winter meant that the waterfalls were booming and the streams were full.

Sometime during our few days in the valley, I took one day to explore. On that day I attempted to visit as many different parts of the valley as possible. On this particular hike, I was looking for a somewhat unique view of El Capitan. If you don’t know, El Capitan is one of the tallest freestanding granite outcrops in the world. Climbers scale its face and sometimes need to sleep overnight hanging from pitons in their tents or sleeping bags. I can’t imagine attempting a climb of such a face but I really can’t imagine how it must feel to sleep hanging thousands of feet above the valley floor!

On that hike I picked my way along the Merced River hoping to find an interesting shot. As I was hiking back down a short trail I was struck by this view of the river and valley framed by these beautiful cedar trees. Even though it was shot with a camera that I don’t use anymore, the D100, I’m still pleased with the image. Of course that result speaks more to the beauty of the scenery than it does about the photographer. I’m already looking forward to a return trip. Enjoy!