Tag Archives: Redrock

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:


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.

The BLM is opening comments to improve the Lottery system for “The Wave”

The BLM is seeking to improve the lottery system they use to distribute the 20 daily passes to “The Wave” rock formation near Kanab that is so popular with photographers. The system definitely needs to be improved but if they stick to only 20 entrants a day there isn’t much they can do. It’s a simple matter of too much demand for so little product.

The Wave
Close up of the textures of “The Wave”

The current system divides 20 daily permits in half; 10 available in an online lottery up to 4 months prior, and 10 for a “walk-in” lottery. But since about 150 people show up every morning for those permits means that if you plan on walking in and getting a permit you have a snowball’s chance in hell.

You show up at the Kanab BLM office prior to 9 in the morning the day BEFORE you want to hike to enter your name in the lottery. At 9 you go into a small room with the other 150 tourists and listen as they read off 10 numbers to see if yours is called. If you aren’t present and don’t respond when they call your number they will wait a bit and call a new number instead so you must be there waiting every morning you want a chance.  If you’re lucky enough to win you get a permit to enter the area the day after (not the day you win the lottery).  The permits are per person, not per group or per vehicle. As an example who difficult that can be, when I was there a husband/wife photographer duo were trying to get in. He got a permit and she didn’t. She hugged and kissed him and said “Have fun, take some great pictures for us.”

Ouch, that’s not the makings of a happy vacation.

Coyote Buttes North Arizona
Hiking the Coyote Buttes Area

My advice to somebody who wants to see The Wave: apply online 4 months ahead until you get a slot. Then plan your vacation around it. Spending every morning of your vacation in a room waiting for eventual disappointment is horrible when you should be out enjoying and photographing a beautiful desert sunrise.

Lastly. After being to the wave I have to say it was over-hyped.

It is beautiful, but no more so than 1000 other places in southern Utah. It’s also a not as big of formation as I thought, the reason you see 100 pictures of the same wave is because that’s all there is. It’s a formation in an area of 50ft by 50ft so there aren’t a lot of different angles to shoot it. It looks like some weird painted landscape but it’s really just a weird painted slot, similar to many others in the area.

And that seems to be the BLM’s solution to the problem. Since it doesn’t look like there will be a large increase in permits given they are going to promote other nearby trails with gorgeous scenery. This is a great idea if you ask me; Grand Staircase-Escalante is a vast park covering some stunning locations that are relatively un-visited and un-photographed. It’s the perfect place to explore and find something almost nobody has seen and be the first to take an amazing photograph of it.

Permit only hiking
Coyote Buttes Are of Northern Arizona

Best problem in the world

Red Canyon
Red Canyon Spires

Going through my photos from Southern Utah I realized that everything is so beautiful it’s hard to rate photos to narrow down: what gets post-production work, what gets shuffled to the archives to never be seen, and what get’s deleted.  Not that I’m amazing and all my shots are great but the subject matter is so fantastic, it feels like a crime to eliminate some of these pictures when there are people who haven’t seen these places.

For me the hardest part of photography is to see something so grand and mind blowing and to try to find a way to cram it all into a single 23″ 4:6 rectangle.  I feel really accomplished when I can narrow down to a single “subject” that conveys the emotion of of all that surrounds it in every direction.