Tag Archives: National Park

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).

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.

I need to get out!

NPS/Kenny Clarke
Temple of the sun NPS/Kenny Clarke

I’ve been feeling too trapped in the house and work recently.  I need to get out to get some photo time in.

I wanted to visit Bryce Canyon last weekend but the stars didn’t align so I decided this weekend I would align them myself if I have to.  Turns out I needn’t have bothered; they’re aligning on their own, this Sunday is the Summer Solstice and longest day of the year.  Also the early evening also sees Jupiter and Venus in the west and Saturn in the East.  And the crescent moon sets early giving an ideally dark night for pictures of the stars.

Another park area I wanted to visit was Capitol Reef’s Cathedral Valley, and then it all came together.  I could get Summer Solstice pictures at the Temple of the Sun!

I’m still working out the logistics in my head (not the least of which is trying to get a 4WD vehicle that can get me in there, plus a place to sleep). But the official Solstice is about 10:30am on Sunday.  Moonrise is about 11:30am so I can get some pics of the moon over its respective temple as well.  Sunrise pictures there would be great too but it’s about an hour of 4WD drive from the Cathedral Valley Campground, so probably pack up and nap in the car throughout the night.  Not supposed to be any clouds but the sun peaking over the orange Temple against a pure deep blue sky should work pretty nice.

The rest of the weekend I can explore the northern Cathedral Valley where I’ve never been before. And spend the time trying to deal with the near 100 degree temperatures expected over the weekend.

The trail to False Kiva wasn’t as deadly as I thought.

This weekend I took a trip to Canyonlands and took some sunset pictures at “False Kiva” the hike goes down the side of a cliff to an alcove but wasn’t nearly as dangerous as I thought it would be. At worst the trail is 6ft from the edge but the drop-off is only 20ft or so to the next ledge. More of a broken arm fall than a plunge to your death. The trail is a bit strenuous at the kiva but doable for hikers.

I’m so far behind in editing photos it may take a while to get it up but here’s a quick photo of the area since most people see the finished shots. This is where you’re working. There are more ruins in the alcove than just the kiva, and rules posted basically saying stay out of it all. After all it is and archeological burial ground, treat it with respect.

It was Sunday night at the head of the busy season and still had the site to myself. Well except for the 4 very adventurous kangaroo mice that kept threatening to dive into my camera bag.


The new “Killer” feature all cameras should have!

Lets admit it, most new camera models are to add in cool little features to make that “camera body of the week” better than the version that came out 4 months ago.  Each time they add something that is amazing at the time, and commonplace in 6 months.

None of this is really needed mind you, half decade old cameras can still have Shutter, Aperture, and ISO settings that allow you to take amazing pictures.  Sensors may slowly evolve to be slightly better but you can still take amazing pictures with an old camera you got for under $100 on eBay using the basics you learned in Photography 101.

But the cool new features are nice.  I’ll make a list of the recently past “killer” features cameras have gotten:

  • Lens Stabilization
  • In-body Stabilization
  • GPS tagging
  • WIFI connection
  • Remote control over WIFI
  • Focus Peaking
  • Electronic level
  • Electronic Shutter
  • Live View (really?! All point and shoots are “live-view”)
  • Ever Faster Continuous Drive Shooting

Well I discovered the new Killer Feature over the weekend.  It sounds simple now but like everything above, when it becomes more common on cameras you’ll wonder how you did without it.

Camera charging via USB.

My Lumix LF1 pocket camera has this and I treated it as an annoyance.  Instead of having a outlet based charger-brick you just plug the camera into USB and it starts charging (unless you tell it to goto transfer mode on a computer).  I preferred the old way of just taking the battery out and popping it on the charger.

But this weekend with a fellow photographer I learned the benefits of the USB in camera charging.  She has a Sony a6000 that charges similar to the LF1.  Late in the day we were roadtripping through Canyonlands National Park taking pictures and her camera was down below 30%.  She pulled out an Anker cell phone charger, plugged the camera into it and charged the camera as we were driving from overlook to overlook.  The camera charged in no time at all with over 75% left on the Anker to save her later.

Anker Battery
Use an Anker to charge your Sony Camera now

I ran out of power too but had backup batteries, but what if I didn’t?  My car is full of USB ports for charging my tablet, cell phone, etc.  But I need a 110v outlet to plug my charger brick (which I left at home) in to charge a battery.  She just needs a Micro USB cable which I have already 3 of from charging my in-car tech bits.  She can charge from the USB cigarette outlet adapter in the car, the Anker portable battery, the Jump Starter Battery in the trunk.  She could even plug into any laptop and use it’s massive battery as an extension of her camera battery.  Basically any operational USB port is now an opportunity to charge your camera back up.  No more fighting over the 2 inverter ports with the other 4 photographers on your road trip.  Buy a multi-port USB outlet and everybody can top off their batteries between shooting locations.

The drawback is if you have more than one battery and have to charge a battery while you use your camera you still need the charger brick.  But if they can change the firmware so the camera can run off USB while shooting you’d have a very good alternative to long exposures and night shooting using just common cell phone batteries and standardized plugs and cables.

The tech is already in point-and-shoot cameras, and spreading through Mirrorless cameras now.  So in 3 years when the first DSLR comes out with it people will be raving about the possibilities it presents. But you heard it here first, USB charging is the next killer feature you don’t even know you can’t live without.

Disclaimer:  I’m not paid by Anker to promote their products.  I’ve just used them in the past and had good experiences with them.  But if you purchase using the links above Amazon does give me something like $0.03 for directing you there.

Rough edit of this weekend’s photo project: Sunset in North Window Arch

This is the rough edit of the picture I wanted to take this weekend, 4 arches and the sun.  This is a single exposure of a 5 shot bracket so I’m hoping to get better definition in the highs and lows of the image but I’m too tired tonight.

I was hoping the sun would set on Turret arch itself but I was pretty sure it would be too far to the right.  Even on the Winter Solstice I don’t think it would move too much further south.  I think the best you would get is it setting in the lump of rock on Turret Arch’s right, not through the arch like I imagined.  I spent the last couple months of time planning and calculating to see how things would line up, I knew the window (lol!) for lining it up would be just a week or 2 before and after the winter solstice.  I’ll try to write up a technical description of what went into planing for this soon (I hope).

Rough edit of North South Turret shot.
Rough edit of North South Turret shot.