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.

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!

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.



These sandstone formations in Zion National Park are totally different than other rock formations I have seen

As you emerge from the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel, the landscape changes dramatically. Inside Zion Canyon, the Virgin River ecosystem rules. This is a land of lush green vegetation and steep canyon walls that has been shaped by the regular and sometimes substantial floods of the river. Outside the canyon, the available water diminishes significantly. Hardwood trees are replaced by scrub pine and tumbleweed. Treeless hills rise around you showing off their irregular shapes and markings.

Some of the rock formations look like checkerboards. Others are simply slick rock piled one slab upon another. Slot canyons have been cut out of the sandstone by the relentless savagery of water and wind.

I suppose water and wind have also formed this scene. Although it looks like a soft layer cake waiting to tumble, in fact the formation is the red sandstone that shapes the rest of the region. This area in particular looks fragile and a bit odd with the pines irregularly dotting its surface. The cloudy morning enhanced the ethereal nature of the landscape. I couldn’t help taking a few shots trying to isolate this particular feature and capturing the look and feel of the morning. The whole thing appeared a bit phantasmagoric to me so Fantasyland seemed an appropriate title for this post. Enjoy.

The Road to Zion

The Road to Zion

An interior park road winds through the cottonwoods of Zion National Park in early November

One really neat aspect of Zion National Park is the color of the roads that run through the park. Since the rock formations in the region are made of a red sandstone, someone had the very clever idea to infuse the park roads with a deep red color. There’s no doubt when you enter the park because the gray-black asphalt outside the park transitions to a deep red that is made even more distinctive by the yellow stripes used to divide the roadway.

On the same morning that we had waited for a sunrise over the Virgin River and the Watchman, we ventured on into the park looking for other images to capture. Not too far up the road my eye was drawn to this scene. The same low-hanging clouds that clung to the Watchman were also passing through the other mountains in the park. From a small bridge that the main road uses to pass over a smaller, interior park road, I set up my tripod. I love the way the road is a leading line into the image. The cottonwoods are at the peak of their color and add a lovely contrast to the scene. Finally, the red rock mountains shrouded in mist create a unique spin on this otherwise normally sun-drenched part of the American Southwest.

Enjoy the image. There is a lot more to come from this trip.