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Natural Bridges Part 2: Full Canyon Loop Hike and heading home

Natural Bridges is a small enough park that you can really settle in and make it your own without too much work. I decided the year before that I wanted to do the full loop hike, hiking along the canyon bottom and hitting all 3 bridges together. The distance is respectable and even though half is on the mesa and half is in the canyon there is still some surprising ups and downs across the canyon bottom. But it’s all well worth it to be one with the desert.

Hiking across the mesa
Hiking across the mesa

All 3 bridges can be seen in one loop through Natural Bridges, the ranger advised starting out at Owachomo Bridge Parking lot and tackling the hike across the mesa first. The sun can be oppressive so it’s good to tackle the exposed section in the morning and spend the afternoon in the canyon with the odd shade.

Weathered Tree
Weathered Tree

The trail to Sipapu Bridge involves a few ladders and many stairs. And some interestingly weathered trees.

Sipapu Bridge
Sipapu Bridge

It’s hard to give the feeling of size in a picture, Sipapu Bridge is the second largest Natural Bridge in the world behind Rainbow Bridge. For a sense of scale those are full grown Cottonwood Trees looking like bushes below the bridge.

Life in the canyon
A tree in the canyon

The desert above the canyon is known as the Pygmy Forest because the lack of water and nutrients slows the tree’s growth. But in the bottom canyon trees grow tall and pools of water linger long after rains have past.

Native American Ruins
Native American Ruins

The canyon walls are full of relics of the time when the area was full of Anasazi.

Kachina Bridge
Beneath Kachina Bridge

The massive tonnage of rock suspended with nothing below it is mind blowing. See the two hikers beneath for scale.

Indian Kiva
A religious Kiva under the bridge

Much of the canyon has protected Indian relics.

Slickrock carving at the bottom of the canyon
Slickrock carved by coursing water

After seeing the deep canyons around Lake Powell it’s hard to imagine that each was slowly and intricately cut by water through the hard sandstone.

Slickrock under Owachomo Bridge
Slickrock under Owachomo Bridge

Owachomo Bridge is the “Old Man” of the park. The water no longer runs under it after a storm, having etched another route that bypasses the Bridge. Now it just slowly weathers until it will finally collapse.

Plus it was a bit of a relief finally seeing the end of the hike in sight after so many blind curves I expected to be the last turn only to have another canyon curve in the distance.

Comb Ridge
Comb Ridge curves off into the distance.

The hike took most of the day and I wanted to be back to Moab before night fell. But there was still enough time to get some quick pics of Comb Ridge. The ridge stretches in a giant crescent to the south, it’s not very developed but the area is full of Native American history and long rarely visited slickrock canyons. I hope to check it more in depth in the future.

Here is the map full of pictures from the second day down at Natural Bridges:


Natural Bridges Part 1: The San Rafael Swell and Glen Canyon Roadtrip

When doing the big Southern Utah loop through the National Parks I realized half a day in Natural Bridges was not enough and vowed to go back. The added benefit is I could plan a roadtrip down through San Rafael Swell, Upper Glen Canyon, and leave past Comb Ridge, Canyonlands, and Moab.

Open field
Golden waves of grain

Although the goal was to hike Natural Bridges, getting there is half the fun. Plus some big beautiful storm clouds were chasing me out of Northern Utah. I checked weather.gov beforehand and the storm hitting the north wouldn’t impact me in the south.

Mile marker 68.99 instead of 69.
I guess the alternative was getting stolen too often.

It took me a few second to figure out why they wouldn’t be able to post mile marker 69??…
Oh!  Now I get it!

Barren Landscape in San Rafael
Barren Landscape

It was slightly longer to take I-70 to the monument but I wanted to drive through San Rafael Swell to scout for a future trip. After descending through pine mountains you come out on the barren desert plateau.

San Rafael Swell
Looking over the San Rafael Swell

The San Rafael Swell is currently BLM land very popular with ATV and slot canyon explorers. So far oil and gas interests haven’t been encroaching, but if any unprotected place in Utah is befitting a being elevated to National Park status it’s this place. If you like any of the Utah Mighty 5 parks, you’ll love San Rafael Swell.

Long Straight Road
The Long Straight Road

After I-70 breaks through the broken edge of the Swell it’s a long straight ride across the desert plains that separate the Swell from Canyonlands and the Green and Colorado Rivers.

Slickrock dunes
Slickrock dunes

After a last chance for gas in Hanksville more southward travel changes from desert plains as you start to cut down through the slickrock towards the canyons of the Colorado River. This area is prime slot canyon territory.

Glen Canyon Monuments
Glen Canyon Monuments

The Colorado River sliced through the sedimentary rock carving complex canyons into the desert named Glen Canyon. Covering much of the southern portion of Utah.

The north end of Lake Powell
The north end of Lake Powell

In 1966 Glen Canyon dam was completed 185 river miles away creating Lake Powell. It’s difficult to define where the river ends and the lake begins but Hite crossing is generally considered the north end of Lake Powell. The Lake used to cover the surrounding floodplains but recent drought has left the marina high and dry.

Hite Bridge
Hite Bridge crosses the Colorado

Even though it slices through nearly a quarter of the state the Colorado River only has 3 drive-able river crossings in Utah. Hite and nearby Dirty Devil Bridges were considered “The world’s most beautiful bridges” when completed in 1966. I don’t know about that but the setting could definitely sway the vote.

 Red Rock Plateau
Straight to Red Rock Plateau

After the flat desert plain it’s easy to see why this area of Utah is known as Canyon Country.

Milky Way Galaxy and ISS
The International Space Station crosses the Milky Way

Natural Bridges was the worlds first “International Dark Sky Park.” There are few places with as low of light pollution as this. And in summer the core of the Milky Way is in full view, occasionally the International Space Station and the odd satellite make an appearance as well.


Here’s the full roadtrip and all the pictures from the trip:

Photo trip: Highway 12 Roadtrip – Grand Staircase Escalante, Kodachrome, and Bryce

Utah State Route 12 passes through or near 3 of Utah’s National Parks and Monuments, 3 of its State Parks, and has been designated a National Scenic Byway. The highway makes up about half of the drive linking all of Utah’s “Mighty Five” National Parks and makes up the most scenic portion of the drive. (Check the bottom of page for a full map of the trip and many more pictures.)

Beginning of Utah state route 12
The start of Utah’s Scenic Byway 12

The northern end is an unassuming junction in Torrey, the gateway to Capitol Reef National Park.

The Henry Mountains, over Capitol Reef from the Aquarius Plateau
The Henry Mountains, over Capitol Reef from the Aquarius Plateau

The completed highway is one of the newest in Utah; although parts of it have existed before it wasn’t fully paved until the 1985 when the dirt road from Boulder over the mountain to Grover was paved.  From the Aquarius Plateau you can see out over the southern end of Capitol Reef National Park.

Boulder Creek from Higway 12
Boulder Creek from Highway 12

Due to the raw physical terrain building roads in the area was always a challenge. The town of Boulder relied on pack mule for mail service until the Hell’s Backbone road was a completed by the CCC in 1935. Electricity service was not brought to town until 1947.

Highway 12 hogsback
Driving along the top of the Hogsback.

Hell’s Backbone is an exciting road to drive with sharp drop-offs on either side of the highway as it drops down into Calf Creek Canyon. Calf Creek is a great camping site but quite popular and fills up during the busy season (I got a site at 4pm on a Thursday, it was full by 5:30pm).

Upper Calf Creek Falls
Upper Calf Creek Falls. Careful finding you way down from the top.
Underwater Potholes
Erosion beneath the waves

There are 2 main falls in the canyon, Upper and Lower Calf Creek Falls. Lower is much more popular, Upper is just as beautiful but the trails isn’t as well established and has a much more drastic elevation change from the top of the canyon to the bottom.

Head of the Rocks Sunrise
Sunrise at Head of the rocks in Grand Staircase Escalante

A short drive from Calf Creek is the Head of the Rocks overlook. This gives a great view of the Calf Creek area from the opposite end of Hell’s Backbone.

Sunset over Calf Creek canyon
The last rays of Sun

The establishment of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument has made the towns along Highway 12 the prime jumping off points to the northern half of the monument.  There are multiple campsites and RV parks to utilize since GSENM doesn’t have many well developed campsites within yet.

Devil's Garden
Devil’s Garden picnic area, no camping

Shortly before the town of Escalante is the Hole in the Rock road that leads into GSENM. The road is well maintained and well traveled so passenger cars can handle it unless it rains. When it rains it turns to mud that will swallow 4×4 vehicles as well. Avoid the road if wet, not only is there a chance of getting stuck but the muddy ruts damage the road when they dry.  The BLM will actually close the road if it’s bad so be aware as it can affect your plans.

Metatate Arch
Metatate Arch

Halfway down the road is Devils Garden, a cluster of unique slickrock hoo-doos and some delicate arches. Climbing on slickrock is ok but is prohibited on the arches themselves.  The general rule for National Parks and Monuments is: if it’s has a name, you can’t climb on it.

Powell Point
Powell Point

The road continues down into Henrieville and Cannonville, and a short detour south is another main road into GSENM that passes Kodachrome Basin State Park.

The Grand Parade
The Grand Parade. 2 of the white columns can bee see in it.

Kodachrome is more slickrock fins, towers, and arches.  There are also a bunch of geologically unique limestone columns peaking through the sandstone.  Many theories have been given as to their creation, one being that they are remnants of ancient thermal springs and geysers like in Yellowstone, but now the surrounding earth has eroded away leaving the hard-water deposits that were once underground.

Desert Antelope
Desert Antelope with Kodachrome Basin and Bryce Canyon behind

Kodachrome sits below the Bryce Canyon mesa but the type of rock is different so it’s not an extension of the same formaiton.

Below Bryce Canyon
Below Bryce Canyon

The highway climbs from the bottom of the Bryce Canyon amphitheater. From the top of the mesa a short detour off Highway 12 heads into the heart of the park.

Bryce Canyon Monolith
Bryce Canyon Monolith
Bryce Canyon Mesa
Bryce Canyon Mesa
Red Canyon Tunnel
Red Canyon Tunnel in the Dixie National Forest

South past Bryce the highway goes through Red Canyon in the Dixie National Forest before ending at the Highway-89 junction. Many people will continue north to Panguitch as the end point, or turn south at the junction towards Zion National Park (an hour away).

End, Highway 12
End, Highway 12

The full road map and all pictures taken on the trip (the good and bad).

Size Matters

One of the original reasons I switched to using mirrorless cameras is the big size improvement over traditional DSLR cameras.  In the early days of digital it was hard to pack all the electronics into a camera and sizes exploded.  Now that large size has become the established standard and the classic film SLR cameras look tiny in comparison.

SLR DSLR size comparison
SLR on the left, Two DSLRs on the right. cropped via 55Laney69 on Flickr.com

The first 35mm film camera I got when I was a kid was my grandfathers old Kodak 35.  It had a simple rangefinder form-factor and was completely manual.  Fast forward a few decades when the first mirrorless cameras were coming out and DPReview had a glowing review of the Panasonic GF1 and it’s 20mm pancake lens.  I loved using it, it made me feel like I was starting out new with a fresh eye for photography.  And it’s easy to see why compared to the Kodak 35.  I was literally going back to my roots (actually my first camera was a Kodak Ektra 1 but I was about 6 years old so it doesn’t count).

Kodak 35 and Lumix GF1 size comparison.
Kodak 35 and Lumix GF1 GX1 size comparison.

Compared to the current DSLRs the GF1 looks like a toy.  But again, although the technology was now here to minimize size (check out the Sony NEX cameras) the big manufactures are wedded to the massive DSLR because it “Looks more professional”  Though admittedly, if you were hiring a wedding photographer and one had a big DSLR and the other had a tiny mirrorless which would you choose?
Did the thought of “What do their wedding photos look like” even enter your mind before you started to lean one way?

I’ve been through a few other cameras since the GF1 but now I’m loving the Olympus OMD EM5 mk.II.  Again it’s easy to see why.  Here’s a picture of it next to my Nikon FE SLR (same model on the left in the comparison picture at the top of the post).

Nikon FE and Olympus OMD EM5
Nikon FE and Olympus OMD EM5 Mk2 size comparison.

Most people consider the DSLR the evolution of the film SLR but I think the smaller mirrorless cameras are spiritually the more accurate descendants of film cameras.  Even the biggest camera setups used by professional photojournalists in the days of film were a fraction of the size and weight of the big heavy DSLRs you see people using today.  And form factor has a major impact on how and how much you use a camera. The majority of my photography involves hiking, backpacking, or lots of on foot work where shaving off the extra 10-20 pounds of gear can make or break a hike into the backcountry.  Conversely many people aren’t even photographing with their big DSLR because of the bulk of simply carrying it around.  It stays on a shelf at home and they just use their iPhone instead.

A feather light afternoon wandering the streets with a tiny rangefinder style camera with a panckake lens compared to the physical back pain of lugging a huge DSLR around will quickly change your mind on why cramming more into a smaller package is more than just a passing trend with cameras.

Of course on the far end of small size there are cameras like my dad’s Minox B, but I figure just leave those to James Bond and the other secret agents.

Tiny Minox B film camera
Tiny Minox B film camera

Behind the scenes in Cathedral Valley

Just one of those “What goes on behind the scenes” posts.

Sunset my first night in Upper Cathedral Valley had me giddy. Besides being my first time in this place I had a nearby campsite overlooking then entire valley and saw exactly 5 other human beings all weekend, it was all mine.
The remote Cathedral Valley campground has only 6 sites, but only 2 filled up the early summer weekend I was up there. And 30 minutes up the mountain is tons of National Forest camping if you do need a backup.

Anyway I spent the evening I arrived scouting the area and noticed this would be a great site for taking pictures at sunset.  I used the android app “Sun Surveyor” to give me a compass direction where the setting sun would split the 2 “cathedrals”. After making dinner at camp it was a 20 minute dirt road drive to my spot.  Then it took a little bit longer than anticipated wandering 400ft onto the plain to setup the shot because I was avoiding patches of Biological Soil and tufts of desert grass that have a hard enough time surviving without being stomped by a hiking boot.  Desert environments are some of the most delicate in the world so stick to trails as much as possible.  If you’re out in the back-country where trails don’t exist stick to slickrock, animal trails, and dry washes.  It may involve some zig-zags and backtracking but it keeps the terrain looking untouched for the next photographer.

Taking the shot in Upper Cathedral Valley
Photographing the Cathedrals of Cathedral Valley

Sometimes you just end up enjoying yourself so much you can’t handle it.  That’s how taking pictures this evening was.  I took about 50 pictures of the same thing it was just so beautiful, I had a hard time stopping. Every moment seemed better than the last.  I had to take a picture with my phone of me taking pictures I was having so much fun.

Upper Cathedral Valley Sunset
Needle Mountain Sunset in Upper Cathedral Valley

All of the pictures turned out great.  It was really hard choosing which one was best.  I tried a few different angles and compositions but when the subject material is so beautiful everything works.

The technical details?

I used a Depth of Field app on my phone to calculate the hyper focal distance for the picture and used that to set my focus manually (the camera Focus Peaking confirmed things were good to go).  The benefit of m43 is that the comparatively wide DOF means I could still keep my aperture in the lens’ sweet spot instead of jacking it up to f/22 where diffraction becomes an issue.

Shooting into the sun with a wide lens I knew the range of light would be difficult to capture (I notice I shoot into the sun a lot).  I tried to balance the exposure equally between sky and shadow with a bit more emphasis on the sky.  I didn’t mind if some shadows stayed inky black and mysterious.  The OMD-EM5 II has an onscreen historgram but also an option that colors pure whites and pure blacks red and blue respectively on the screen in real time. So it was easy to balance the amount of black shadows I had in the image.

The OMD also has a programmed HDR button that basically turns Exposure Bracketing off and on.  I have it configured to (-1,0,+1).  The 3 exposures were blended using Lightroom’s new built in HDR module.

I’m also using the fully articulating screen; with wide angle shots like this I like to get in low and close to the foreground.  Having the screen kept me from bending over, contorting, or laying on the ground to look through the eyepiece.  It really limits your impact on the environment when all you leave is 3 Tripod holes and 2 foot prints instead of trampling everything within 4ft.  Many large camera makers still consider articulating screens the realm of consumer cameras.  I think they should be standard on all cameras above the prosumer level for how helpful they are in landscape work.  The amount of stress they save your back from crouching into weird positions is too valuable.

The last and most important part of taking the shot was that I had a small bottle of bug repellent on me.  The flies and gnats were out in force as soon as I stopped walking.  If I hadn’t had that emergency bottle in my camera bag I wouldn’t have had the patience to wait the 20 minutes for the light to work for me.

Always check over the next hill. Even if you don’t make it to the next “photo-op”

Whether you’re taking pictures or just out on vacation always explore, don’t get in too much of a rush that you just try to hit a series of planned waypoints before moving on.  So may people go out to see such amazing places but they think that the parking lot viewpoints already have all the best views mapped so they just hit them all as rapidly as possible without discovering the hidden or overlooked details that really make a place beautiful.

When I was planning my trip to Cathedral Valley I marked a bunch of “points of interest” that I wanted to see.  Usually they were these main overlooks and features in the area.  When I drove down the Hartnet Road I planned on heading down to the Lower South Desert Overlook, mostly as a set turn around point because all the pictures I saw of it were pretty standard.  Another view of Jailhouse Rock from a closer angle where people pulled up, snapped a shot of the monolith, then hopped in their cars and left.

Jailhouse rock
Viewpoint view of Jailhouse Rock via Panaramio.

But there is so much more in this area just below the viewpoint if you continue all the way down the trail.  What I thought was going to be a casual shot of Jailhouse Rock ended up being one of the most interesting places to Photograph in Capitol Reef.

Hoodoos by the Lower South Desert Overlook
Lower South Desert Overlook trail continues down to the valley floor.

My shot above is about 500ft curving around to the left of the shot on the top.  The same white “goblins” are in the center of both pictures; it’s just that the first is looking west, the second is a bit lower looking north.  All of the crinkly detail of the cliff is hidden from the overlook.

The same thing occurred last week in Yellowstone.  People get obsessed with seeing erupting geysers, active hot pools, or wildlife wandering the country and overlook the fact that it’s some of the more pristine and beautiful mountain terrain in North America.  I frequently had photographers following me at pullouts in Yellowstone under the impression I was seeing something they weren’t; which was true, but even when I pointed it out to them they still didn’t see it.

At Swan Lake some Chinese tourists poured out of a van and started scanning the horizon in the direction I was shooting.
“You see animals?”, one asked in broken English.  “No, that mountain just looks amazing from this angle.”  They all looked defeated and immediately filled back into their van without taking a picture.

The day before at Vixen Geyser I was crouched for a while taking closeup pictures of the geyserite pearls around the gurgling vent.  A passing tourist (with a nice D810), asked happily if I knew it was going to go off soon.  “Nah, I’m just taking pictures of the smooth rocks here.”  He grunted a “Hrmp” and walked on.  The problem is about 2 minutes later it did start erupting and he rushed back to photograph it, glaring at me as he came back thinking I had deliberately lied to him to cheat him out of a shot.

By stopping to take in the little things I was favored with a surprise geyser in addition to the interesting formations; by rushing to get to the next “viewpoint” he was a day late and a dollar short having to play catch-up to something already in progress.  As it was going off I read in my trusty handbook and it turns out that the geyser goes off every 5-10 minutes so I stuck around and watched it again (he didn’t); but preparation and education is an article for another day.

Many famous photographers have said you can’t chase down photography, you have to be patient with your eyes open waiting for the perfect moment.  Don’t get so caught up rushing to the next photo-op that you miss what is already around you.

French Colors and subconcious influence from Vincent Van Gogh

One of Van Gogh’s most famous pictures “Cafe Terrace at Night” evokes a sense of a warm inviting cafe to stop in for a drink on a comfortable night in Arles.

Cafe Terrace at Night
Cafe Terrace at Night

As he himself described it to his sister:

On the terrace there are small figures of people drinking. An immense yellow lantern illuminates the terrace, the facade, the side walk and even casts light on the paving stones of the road which take a pinkish violet tone. The gables of the houses, like a fading road below a blue sky studded with stars, are dark blue or violet with a green tree. Here you have a night painting without black, with nothing but beautiful blue and violet and green and in this surrounding the illuminated area colours itself sulfur pale yellow and citron green.

I was editing pictures from my trip to France and noticed the color palate was very familiar.  The fashions may have changed but you can see not much else has; an evening out for a drink with friends is still as it was.

Cafe Terrace at Night
The blue sky of early night.

These pictures are actually from the old town of Aix en Provence and not Arles like Van Gogh’s painting but the similarity is striking.  I actually wasn’t setting out with that in mind when shooting or when editing.  It’s just some street photography on an old French street, but you can really see a modern interpretation of the world as Van Gogh probably saw it as a 30 year old capturing the night around him.

Crepes evening snack
Snack before hitting the town.
A date with the boys
A date with the boys

I actually took a picture of Van Gogh’s cafe during the day from the exact same perspective later in the trip but I think these street shots of the night in Aix is closer to his work than that picture.

Les Enfants
Les Enfants

I read a lot of books and looked at a lot of pictures by famous Artists from the area and it looks like I subconsciously copied it a bit.  Or perhaps all of southern France is just as beautiful as the paintings from a time long past.