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“Adventure is allowing the unexpected to happen to you. Exploration is experiencing what you have not experienced before. How can there be any adventure, any exploration, if you let somebody else – above all, a travel bureau – arrange everything before-hand?” – Richard Aldington
Having been largely inspired by large-format photographer Ben Horne who visits Zion National Park regularly, I finally managed to arrange a week in Southwest Utah and Zion during Oct/Nov 2016. The Virgin River has taken 140 million years to carve through several thousand feet of colourful sandstone to form remarkably deep canyons, soaring cliffs and huge monoliths. The Southern Paiute Indians call this place ‘Mukuntuweap’ meaning ‘Straight-up land’.
No private vehicles are allowed in Zion Canyon north of Canyon Junction, visitors must use a shuttle bus which runs often and is very convenient. However, this does limit where a photographer can shoot sunrise and sunset as the shuttle service only runs from about 7:00am to 7:00pm, if you miss the last bus it’s a seven mile hike back to the Visitor Centre car park in the dark! For the local explorer with a tent, a wilderness permit is necessary for staying out overnight or if climbing using technical equipment.
I decided to stay in Kanab which placed me centrally between Zion National Park and geological features I was interested in photographing in Southwest Utah/Northern Arizona. I did little actual planning prior to the trip due to pressures of work, but things have a way of working out and frankly, it’s how I like to explore; having the freedom to go with how I feel at the time, which also depends upon current weather and light conditions. So this is the story of my six days in this amazing region of the US …
Day 1 (Saturday 29 October) – Taylor Creek: Excited of what adventures lay ahead this week, I headed out from the hotel in Kanab on the one-hour twisty and very scenic Zion-Mount Carmel Highway to the main Zion National Park Visitor Centre. A small herd of Big Horn sheep was crossing the road so I stopped and followed them for a short time into a sandy wash, they seemed to be a family group with a couple of large males present. The bridge just south of Canyon Junction seemed to be always full of photographers, so I stopped and joined my herd amongst them (left shot below).
Being a Saturday, Zion NP was very busy (2.6 million visitors per year) and as I drove towards the Visitor Centre I found that the car park was full so continued and found myself driving back out of the park main entrance; the queue to get back in being about a mile long – this dictated a revised plan of action! I decided to drive another hour or more to the north-west corner of Zion NP, the Kolob Canyons; once there I checked in to the Visitor Centre and decided to walk the Taylor Creek trail (5 miles 3.5hours) after completing the loop drive.
Day 2 (Sunday 30 October) – Emerald Pools: Again the hours’ drive from Kanab to Zion along highway US9 early in the morning and to my surprise, I saw two bison! I also decided, once over the National Park boundary before the set of switchbacks, to stop at Checkerboard Mesa (left below) which is a cone-shaped white cliffs formation with a distinctive cross-hatching pattern.
I managed to find a spot to park in the crowded Visitor Centre car park this time, got on the shuttle bus and headed into Zion Canyon. I decided to start with something moderate (as described in the guide-map) and hike the Upper Emerald Pool Trail taking two hours (2.2 miles with about 300 feet climb).
Zion NP being very popular, one should stick to the trails so as to protect the landscape and natural habitats; there is a philosophy of ‘leave-no-trace’. Most of the trails are obvious and well trodden but this leaves little scope for a photographer to compose a particular shot; the only shots available are those from the trails. To be honest, the Emerald Pools at this time of year were little more than dirty puddles. The only interest for me was the small waterfall (centre) at Lower Emerald Pool and at this time of year, just a trickle! I did complete the trail to Upper Emerald Pool, there was a body of water at the end of a dark alcove with a reflection, but to my mind, not worth the effort of lugging the heavy camera and tripod. At least it got me started in Zion and spurred on, I wanted to find something else for the rest of the day!
I got the shuttle to the end of the line (Temple of Sinawava) and walked north on Riverside Walk which, with the fall colours, was quite magnificent (above right). Along the river walk, I met with a nice couple who were taking photographs actually bare foot in the river, I thought I’d join them so took off my boots and socks and waded in, only to find some quick-sand and feel just how cold the water was! We discussed the Narrows hike which I was hoping to do but if it was this cold then it was looking less likely. They told me it was possible to rent suitable footwear at the Zion outfitter in Springdale. So I headed there and rented a pair of Adidas hydro-lace canyoneering boots, a pair of neoprene socks (like a wet-suit) and large wooden hiking stick for support in the fast flowing currents – I was now all set for the next day!
Day 3 (Monday 31 October) – The Narrows: Up early and on the road by 7:00am (in the dark), arrived at the Visitor Centre just after 8:00am after stopping briefly at the bridge just south of Canyon Junction again to shoot the sunrise (left). There was no problem with parking at this time of morning at the Visitor Centre, but then it is a weekday. Time to put on my funky water footwear, warm underwear and check that I have layers to put on if it get really cold in the shady canyon. The 40 minute shuttle bus ride again took me to the last stop – ‘Temple of Sinawava’. I thought this name might be an adaption of ‘sinewave’ perhaps describing the meandering Virgin River; however I was wrong, ‘Temple of Sinawava’ was named by Douglas White, a publicity agent for the Union Pacific Railroad, to honour Sinawava, the Paiute’s Coyote god or spirit.
With the 20 minute Riverside Walk behind me, I’m at the Narrows trail-head just after 9:00am which means I should be back about 6:00pm giving me 45 minutes to spare before the last shuttle bus back. There’s little time to lose, so I head into the water and I am amazed just how warm my feet feel, at no time during the nine-hour walk was I cold (exhausted but not cold) – amazing! The depth of the Virgin River in this canyon obviously varies with weather and season, the risk of flash-floods should be taken very seriously, for my hike the risk was ‘moderately low’ so I decided to go for it. You have to learn to read the river and to choose a safe path through the sandbanks, slippery (in places) rocks and the current; but at no time was it deeper than half way up my thigh. My only worry was slipping or falling in the fast current and getting my backpack soaked, so it pays to place each foot carefully and not rush. The views are incredible, exploring The Narrows was definitely one of the highlights of the trip and actually getting to Big Spring (below right) was a huge sense of achievement.
“Heroes take journeys, confront dragons and discover the treasure of their true selves.” – Carol Pearson
Day 4 (Tuesday 1 November) – Observation Point: My dragons were the heights and sheer drops along most of this grueling 8 mile 6 hour hike (trailhead at shuttle bus stop-7 ‘Weeping Rock’) with an elevation gain of 2,500 feet; the outward journey is a cardio-vascular workout, the return is no better as it punishes thighs and knees. I decided to take three lenses but leave the tripod at base camp for this hike. The first third comprises steep switch-backs, the next sixth a cool, fairly level wash area to recover somewhat, another third up steep exposed slopes with wide vistas of sandstone monoliths and the Zion Valley far below; with the final sixth walking along the elevated plateau to Observation Point. Photography was not too good as the view of the valley below is looking into the sun and the morning sky was that featureless bright light-grey cloud cover that always seems to burn out the histogram, I had some colour in the afternoon on the return hike.
The take-away for me this day was the actual achievement of reaching the summit, stupidly again I only had one litre of water, two would have been the minimum (four if you do this hike in the summer months). I was quite dehydrated and needed to get off the shuttle-bus at stop-5 ‘Zion Lodge’ to replenish; they also sell a huge strawberry yoghurt parfait which was absolutely fabulous!
On the shuttle back to the Visitor Centre I met a nice Canadian couple and we talked about ‘The Wave’, they told me it was possible to take part in a daily lottery for 10 permits at the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument Visitor Centre, which happens to be in Kanab where I was staying!
Day 5 (Wednesday 2 November) – Toadstools: I made an early start to the day to get to the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument Visitor Centre when they opened at 8:00am. On talking to the ranger, I found out that the lottery for 10 permits, taking place at 9:00am is for the hike the next day, the day I fly back to the UK. It takes an hour to drive to the trail head, which includes 8.3 miles of dirt unpaved road and there was 30% chance of storms which would make this road impassable and I would miss my flight. The strenuous hike is two hours each way with heavy camera equipment and through the desert on unmarked trails. I worked out that I would have to check out the hotel in Kanab at 6:00am at the latest, then drive to the trailhead in the dark to start the hike at sun up. I would need daylight to hike to plan a visual route across the landscape, in canyon country it is not possible to walk on a compass bearing and in any case, these don’t work too well with the high iron content in the rocks. There would be little time to spare after photographing the ‘Wave’ and then drive five hours to Phoenix, return the rental car, get the shuttle to the airport and check-in for the flight home – but it was possible – I now have a plan!
So, at 8:30am they let the large group of people who had accumulated to fill out application forms and at 9:00am on the dot, the bingo style drum was rotated and the lottery began! The number 2 was drawn first, a lady behind me shouts out; she had been attending everyday for ten consecutive days without success. Second number out of the lottery – 17; me, yeah, such luck, but I did have a good feeling about this.
After the lottery, the Ranger gave a very good briefing to the ten lucky people left in the room which included the recommendation that we take enough food and water for 24 hours as it takes that long to find someone who’s lost in the desert, or worse. After I had my map and directions, with nothing else planned for the day other than a rough notion that I would try to find the ‘Toadstools’ somewhere on US89 to Page. On route, I found the turnoff to the dirt road and decided it would be a good idea to find the actual trailhead whilst I had daylight, in the morning I would do this journey in darkness. Then after 6 miles into the dirt road – disaster struck, beep .. beep .. a warning from the car, one tyre was losing pressure fast and I couldn’t find the jack to change wheels! The nearest garage seemed to be 50 minutes away towards Page, the hotel 60 minutes in the other direction so I decided to go to Page. I arrived an hour or so later (can’t go too fast with only 5 psi in a tyre!) and a kind chap lent me a hydraulic jack to change the wheel. Two hours later I returned to my hotel, called Hertz and got my tyre repaired – so, all set for tomorrow! Back along the same route towards Page again (it’s a very boring trip this road) and found ‘Toadstools’, interesting geology, if not a little suggestive.
Day 6 (Thursday 3 November) – The Wave: ‘The Wave’ is a Jurassic sandstone formation in the Paria Canyon-Vermillion Cliffs wilderness. This formation is well-known to hikers and photographers and to protect this important site, the BLM only issues 20 permits per day; ten by online lottery four months in advance (and always significantly over-subscribed) and ten walk-in permits on the day before one’s intended hike; again by lottery. These permits are very difficult to obtain and I was extremely lucky to get one. The Ranger records details of car registration number, home address, next-of-kin etc in case of emergencies, two permits are given, one for display in the car, the other tied to the backpack.
Getting to the trailhead involves an 8.3 mile drive over the unpaved Wire Pass road. The four-hour hike is challenging because the Wave is difficult to locate due to the lack of an established marked trail. Hikers must choose their own route across the open desert (originating in Utah and crossing the State boundary into Arizona), which requires traversing exposed sandstone, sand dunes and sandy washes. I arrived just after 7:00am according to plan and on getting out of the 4-wheel drive, I couldn’t believe how cold it was (3°C/37°F)! I had purchased the new Lowepro Whistler BP350AW all seasons back-country camera backpack for the trip for added protection in The Narrows as it was larger than my old backpack; it also has more room for clothing so I knew that I could dress up for the cold and have enough space for storage when the desert got hotter.
Once kitted up, I completed and signed the Trailhead Register and started out, there being just enough light to walk through Coyote Wash downstream for about ½ mile before finding a higher path through the brush. It was very beautiful to see the warm morning sun hit the red desert rocks.
The Jurassic sandstone geology is very interesting with just a hint of The Wave in these rocks:
The final 30 minutes of the hike I spent trying to find a route up from the sandy desert floor to where I thought the Wave might be, this involved a bit of scrambling over rocks and steep sandy slopes, what was a bit of a surprise when I arrived at the Wave, and something that I should have taken into account, was that the whole of the Wave was in shadow. This being only 9:15am the sun was still quite low, so I decided to stay another hour hoping to have full sun in the Wave, it did give me the opportunity to explore and enjoy the area. As it turned out, my last photo in the Wave was timed at 11:02am so I had stayed almost two hours which meant I really had to get a move on if I was to catch my flight.
The sun just making it’s way to the tips:
By 10:35am the Wave is mostly illuminated in full sun, but still some shadow; so I had a little play!
I made my flight from Phoenix after a five-hour drive through some amazing country, one very memorable place is just north of Bitter Springs on US89 deep within the Navajo Reservation, driving south through a gorge where the land just opens out into a flat vista below, then you notice another huge crack in the plateau; this being part of the Grand Canyon – maybe a future trip! An amazing week of hiking, wilderness and photography – and I slept on the flight!