The area around southern Utah is pretty incredible, with a string of five National Parks (from west to east: Zion, Bryce, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, and Arches) and countless other cool places, including the Coral Pink Sand Dunes and Monument Valley.
I spent almost a week wandering around that area – not nearly enough time to visit all those places, but enough to see some of the highlights. As I mentioned in a previous post, I started by camping at Zion, one of my favorite National Parks. On my first day there I hiked the Narrows, walking directly in the Virgin River on and off for about seven hours.
Back at my tent I saw some nice clouds forming as the sun set, but by the time I got to a decent vantage point I’d missed the most intense color.
On my second day in Zion I hiked up to Angel’s Landing, a sandstone rock formation that juts out into the canyon and offers amazing views in all directions. The hike is relatively short – about 5 miles roundtrip – but there’s a lot of elevation gain and the last half-mile takes you out on a narrow path with steep drops on both sides. There are chains to hold as you pass through the more dangerous spots, but it would be a tough haul for someone who isn’t comfortable with heights. Photos don’t do justice to Angel’s Landing, but the shot below gives a sense of the final stretch of the trail.
The Angel’s Landing hike is so popular that it gets clogged with swarms of people during the summer. Big crowds ruin a hike for me, so I decided to get there while the masses were still asleep. Years ago Zion closed most of the valley to personal cars in an attempt to cut down on traffic, forcing everyone to take a shuttle bus to the key points. I took the first bus of the day, the 5:45am “Express Bus” – not to be confused with the 6:30am “First Bus” (which is really the second bus). The terminology might not be intuitive, but the Express Bus did the job – only four other people got off at the stop for the Angel’s Landing trailhead, and they hiked at a different pace so I basically had the whole place to myself. For almost a half hour I was the only person at the final viewpoint, early enough that I saw the first light of the day hitting the valley. On my way back down I passed over 200 people heading up and felt really good about my decision to resist the snooze button on my alarm and get there early.
On the way out of Zion I paid a visit to one of my favorite trees. It’s a little pine tree growing directly out of a sandstone rock formation, clearly visible from the main road and – as a result – frequently photographed. I took this shot when I first saw it years ago, and I took the shot below on my most recent visit.
From Zion I drove directly to Monument Valley, a classic western landscape right on Utah’s border with Arizona, and I made it there right in time for sunset. I’d seen lots of photos of Monument Valley but this was my first visit. I assumed the Mittens, the most famous rock formations in the valley, were visible from the highway, but it turns out they’re on Navajo land and you have to pay a $5 fee for access to the area. If the place has to be commercialized, I wish they’d go a little further and pave the miserable dirt road that starts at the visitor center and weaves deeper into the valley. A few of the potholes almost swallowed my entire car and I only drove about a mile before my roughed-up tires insisted that we turn around.
There were no clouds at sunset to make the Mittens more interesting, so I went back to shoot the sunrise the next morning – but once again I had a boring clear blue sky.
I just need to figure out how to make clouds appear and disappear. Is total control over the weather too much to ask? I would promise to use my powers only for the forces of good.