Cold Nights in Grand Staircase-Escalante
A few weeks ago I managed to squeeze in a quick trip to Utah to do some shooting and exploring in one of my favorite areas of all time, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. This area has to be one of the most incredible places on earth, from canyons to badlands, rivers to potholes, it has it all.
The trip started with a somewhat rushed afternoon escape from Durango, with barely enough time to find evening on the rim of the Colorado River overlooking Horseshoe Bend outside of Page, AZ. This was my first time to this location and although I would come back in a heart beat, I have a feeling that I might have been better to try and time this location for a morning shoot. None the less, I did get one image that I’m looking forward to working with from this shoot and I’ll hopefully have that up soon.
After the sun set I headed back to my truck and tried to decide where I wanted to head for the night. Of course I passed the grocery store on my way back through town and since I had such a rushed departure from Durango I was in desperate need of some groceries. With a minor delay now under my belt, the groceries packed away in the back of the truck, and a handful of maps spread out in the cab of my truck I decided that my destination for the night would be Bryce Canyon, in hopes of a nice sunrise shoot in the morning. Powered by a handful of nuts and some gatorade I set out down the dark desert roads and headed toward Bryce.
The trip to Bryce was pretty uneventful and my late arrival at the park found me eating soup on the tailgate of my truck and then curling up in the driver’s seat watching the moon rise over the canyon. Sunrise came early the next morning around 0830 and the winter wind was definitely adding a little bonus for those like me getting up early to meet the days first glimpse of the sun. The day dawned without a cloud in the sky and after shooting for about an hour I decided that it was in my best interest to head for Escalante and the Hole in the Rock Road, my true destination for the trip.
The drive between Bryce Canyon National Park and Hole in the Rock Road was interesting with more than a few different places that I noticed along the way that hold promise for future exploration. That’s one of the “problems” I encounter when I go to places like Utah, every trip I take I end up coming home with a list of about twenty more places that I want to explore. Not only that, but I take the list of places that I want to explore and combine it with the list of places that I know of shots that I already know about and want to shoot in good light and I have way over a lifetime worth of photographing to do. I better make some more time in my schedule, that’s all I have to say about that.
The afternoon found me exploring the canyons of the Dry Fork of Coyote Gulch along Hole in the Rock Road. Actually, I will admit that this is apparently my second time “not” exploring Peek-a-Boo Canyon, let me explain. The hike down towards Peek-a-Boo Canyon and Spooky Gulch starts in a parking lot at the end of a rough dirt side road that turns off from the main Hole in the Rock Road at around 26 miles from the highway. From the parking lot you follow a cairned trail down over some slickrock and eventually down a steep sandy hill into a side canyon of the Dry Fork of Coyote Gulch, of course the cairns are not super obvious and it’s easy to get off the main trail. The geography of the area seems to funnel you into more or less the correct area, so although getting lost is always a concern, I think that most people, including myself, that stray from the main trail still seem to find themselves in the right area.
As you hike out of the side canyon and into the main Dry Fork there is what appears to be an entrance to a Slot Canyon that you pass almost immediately. There is even a cairn at the entrance to this narrows and the first time I visited this area last summer we took this for the entrance to Peek-a-Boo canyon and explored all the way up until the walls started to become lower. Then we climbed out of the canyon and went cross-country until we found the top entrance to Spooky Gulch and proceeded to make our way down and out of Spooky Gulch from the top. This time I once again saw this entrance as I entered the Dry Fork of Coyote Gulch and once again proceeded to hike up the narrows and into what I still thought to be Peek-a-Boo Canyon. The first time we went I was a little puzzled by the lack of an arch or any of the other distinguishing characteristics that I had read about in the canyon, however I figured that either a flash flood had changed the character of the canyon or the features that were missing were farther up the canyon, past where we had climbed out and cut cross-country. I decided that this time I was going to walk all the up the canyon and hopefully find the missing features, so off I went, through the narrows, through what I believed to be Peek-a-Boo Canyon, and out into the dry wash above. I walked probably a mile into the dry wash figuring that the wash would hopefully slot back up, but after walking about an hour up the sandy wash and exploring a couple of other promising looking side canyons, I decided to head back.
I arrived back at my truck figuring that the either the canyon had filled in and changed because of a flood or I was somehow in the wrong canyon. As I was packing up my gear and getting ready to find a place to camp for the night I saw a couple walking across the parking lot to their vehicle, so I decided to ask them if they knew why there were no arches or other distinguishing features in Peek-a-Boo Canyon. As I asked the question I could see their eyes light up, and after a little chuckle they admitted that they too made the same mistake the first time they came to this area. They said that what I thought was Peek-a-Boo Canyon is actually the narrows section of the Dry Fork of Coyote Gulch, and in order to get to Peek-a-Boo Canyon you have to continue down the main gulch for about fifty meters and you will see the entrance to Peek-a-Boo. They said that you can tell it’s the right canyon cause there are a couple of Moki Steps carved into the rock in order to help get up into the mouth of the canyon and they said there is in fact an arch in the canyon near the entrance. With a smile and a sheepish “thank you,” I departed their company have decided that on my next trip to the Hole in the Rock Road area I will explore Peek-a-Boo Canyon for the third, i mean, first time.
That night I decided to have a campfire and cook dinner in the day use area near Devil’s Garden. The night was cold enough that the fire barely kept me warm as I cooked my Bum Dinner over the coals, but I have to say there’s nothing like a cloudless winter sky in the desert to lift the spirits and cleanse the soul, with the near constant song of a pair of coyotes in the distance to eventually fall asleep to.
The next morning once again dawned cold as the morning sun crept up over the horizon. I spent the hour in the shadow of four marching soldiers, at least that’s what they looked like to me. They are actually four large stones that sit all in a row, kind of reminiscent of stonehenge in some ways I suppose. But to me, in the early morning light of daybreak, they looked like four marching soldiers, making their way through the twisted rocks and pinnacles of Devil’s Garden.
After leaving Devil’s Garden I headed for the trailhead to Zebra Canyon, which in itself can be a little tough to find if you have never been there before. But with a little perseverance it’s easy enough to locate. The trail starts off headed over the hills and across a couple of dry washes, then it heads down Halfway Hollow for a ways until it intersects Harris Wash. Turning left at Harris Wash you follow a side wash for a couple of hundred meters and you end up right at the mouth of the Zebra Canyon Slot. This slot itself isn’t real long and it is quite narrow. The first time I visited this canyon it was packed and there wasn’t a moment that I spent in the canyon that I wasn’t trying to squeeze around another person or stay out of someone else’s shot. This time however, I arrived at the canyon mid-morning to find no one else there, so I unpacked my camera and spent about an hour shooting the beautiful soft light bouncing between the striated walls of the canyon. I then had the opportunity to cook lunch at the mouth of the canyon and take a leisurely nap resting against the sun-warmed slickrock, before once again entering the canyon mid-afternoon and spending another hour shooting the many different ways that the light travels between the walls of this amazing place. I have talked to others that have been to the canyon and found knee deep water in the bottom of it, creating quite the cold and challenging foray, however on both of my trips to Zebra I found the canyon dry. And this time, in the middle of January, I spent the whole day at the canyon without seeing so much as one other person. It was the truly the perfect day.
That evening I decided to spend sunset exploring someplace I had never been before, Cedar Wash Arch, which sits on the edge of a cliff along Cedar Wash. The side road that leaves Hole in the Rock Road was pretty muddy and in one spot I was a little worried I might get stuck, but I threw the Tacoma in 4WD and of course the road proved to be no challenge what so ever. After parking the truck I headed down a small path that led to the edge of Cedar Wash, then I rim-walked along the edge for about a half hour before I found the arch below me. The beautiful light of sunset was on me at this point and I had to rush to try and find a view that provided an interesting composition of the arch. Then after shooting for about a half hour I decided that I needed to make haste finding my way out in hopes that it wouldn’t get dark since the small trail leading from the parking lot to the edge of the wash wasn’t real well marked. Of course I found the trail with no trouble and was back at my truck with light to spare. All in all I would say that Cedar Arch is difficult to photograph at sunset from above, it might be more worth it to make it a morning destination or to possibly walk in along the wash, but I haven’t done that so I’m not sure what it might bring in the way of an interesting composition.
After some deliberation with myself I decided to take my chances and head for Bryce Canyon National Park for another sunrise shoot, the weather seemed to be changing and I figured that if a storm front was coming in than a grand vista view of Bryce Canyon might be just the thing I need. I arrived a little bit earlier in the evening this time so I decided to grab a campsite in the North Campground and I spent the evening next to a nice campfire eating soup and drinking hot chocolate to keep warm. Of course about an hour into my fireside dinner the wind picked up with a vengeance and it was all I could do to get my fire out before the embers were scattered all the way to Zion. None the less, I got the fire out and curled up nice and warm in my forty below bag in the back of my truck just before the snow started falling. I fell asleep that night dreaming of fresh snow and storm clouds rolling over the red rock formations of Bryce.
The morning of course dawned frigid cold once again, this time with a howling wind moving up toward the rim from the canyon floor. None the less, I walked through the snow up to the Sunrise Overlook where I found a beautiful and softly lit Bryce Canyon before me. After shooting for about an hour, well past when the sun was supposed to be coming up, I decided that perhaps it was too cloudy for a full on sunrise show and started packing up, still satisfied with the beautiful morning shoot. Then all of a sudden the sun broke through the storm clouds and the bathed the whole scene in a beautiful light, providing another great hour of shooting the constantly changing light conditions. With the light conditions changing so fast I quickly forgot about the cold nipping at my face and instead became lost in the moment. I honestly had to drag myself away from the rim of the canyon in order to start the seven hour drive back to Durango, but I’m glad I did, because somewhere along I-70 in the area of the San Rafael Swell I ran into the full brunt of the storm that I had been shooting at sunrise, which made for a long, tense, and nerve-wracking drive home. None the less, I made it home in time for dinner with my wife and daughter. The perfect end to a great trip!