It was another cloudless early morning as I drove through the dark toward Valley of Fire State Park; the telltale glow over the mountains to the east was visbile as I entered the park grounds. I made my way to the Scenic Drive, parked at the deserted parking area #3 and made my way down the ravine toward Crazy Hill. I’d spent some time at Crazy Hill the previous day, but limited myself largely to shooting abstracts. At the time, the light hadn’t been conducive to a wider shot of Crazy Hill itself, in the full splendor of the northern end of Valley of Fire’s Rainbow Vista, but that wouldn’t be a problem at dawn.
The sun rose as I was wrapping up at Crazy Hill and I made my way to two nearby arches that I’d scouted the previous day. The first subject was the Fire Cave, an arch with multiple openings that is best shot facing south.
Thunderstorm Arch is very close to the Fire Cave, and that was my next stop.
I finished at the Crazy Hill/Fire Cave area as quickly as possible and zipped back up the ravine to the parking lot. It was time to drive to the Loop Road area of the park and shoot an assortment of arches there before the light became truly bad. The drive itself was only 10-15 minutes, but there was a lot to do once I got there.
My first stop was the unofficially named Windstone Arch. This feature was made famous by well-known landscape photographer David Muench, who most recently included a photograph of the feature on the cover of his book Windstone: Natural Arches, Bridges and Other Openings. (I received a copy of the book myself as a gift, five or six years ago.) The “Windstone” name for the feature is colloquial and comes from the title of the book. Technically, as far as I can tell, the feature is unnamed.
My experience with Windstone Arch is kind of interesting. At least I think it’s interesting; your mileage may vary. Despite having GPS coordinates and the knowledge that Windstone was within a couple of hundred feet of the Loop Road itself, I found it remarkably difficult to find. I’d spent some time during the previous day’s scouting session wandering around in search of it. It was time well spent, I think, because I discovered several other spots that I felt were worth shooting, such as the image immediately below. (I marked these locations on the GPS and had no problem finding them the following day.) Once again, you can see the impact of reflected light on sandstone.
During that earlier scouting session, after wandering around for a good half an hour, I suddenly found Windstone itself. The light that afternoon was awful; I didn’t even have my camera equipment with me, since I knew I wouldn’t be doing any shooting then, but I spent some time sizing Windstone up with the naked eye. It’s essentially a small, delicate cave-like feature, with openings at both ends and a remarkably photogenic arch within the cave itself. The classic shot is the one on the cover of the Muench book. As luck would have it, this was the opening that I poked my head into first. When I was there on the afternoon of Day 10, direct sunlight was flooding into the chamber, but I knew that I was in the right place. I took the time to climb down from the first opening and find my way up to the other side. Again, sunlight was directly impacting the shot, but–weirdo that I am, I guess–I liked the composition better from this side–the shot that, as best as I can tell, people don’t ordinarily shoot. I made up my mind that, the following morning, I’d produce images from both sides.
It was a good plan, but it was flawed, as I found out when I returned to Windstone on the morning of Day 11. I climbed up to the chamber from my preferred side–the non-iconic side. There were two openings toward the rear of the chamber that the sun, in the southeast sky, was flooding directly. Ah, I thought to myself…perhaps this is the reason no one shoots it from this direction! You need the sun up to get the dramatic impact of the reflected light, but by the time the sun is high enough to make that happen it ruins the shot by pouring through those openings. I fiddled around with multiple exposures so I could play the HDR game in postprocessing, but I knew even as I was doing so that it was a waste of time. You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.
Very disappointed, I climbed down and went back up to the iconic side. The sun was no problem from there; the openings were behind my shooting position and actually helped fill the chamber with indirect–but highly photogenic–reflected light. So I produced the iconic-side image with my 14-24 mm lens. You can see one of the iconic-side images below. The sunlight openings I mentioned are behind the camera. I was on my hands and knees in the cramped setting; my tripod was set up very low as a result.
When I was done, I began gathering up my things, in preparation to move on to the next site, but before packing up for good, I took another look at the openings–the ones that were killing the shot that I really wanted–behind me. They weren’t that large. I decided to check them out from outside of the cave. Because of the topography of the rock formations, I wasn’t even sure if I could get to the outside of the openings, but after a little bit of rock hopping and a 500-foot (approximately) walk, I found that I was in fact able to get there. As I’d surmised, the openings weren’t huge. They were, however, 2-4 feet above the rocks I was standing on. I had a brainstorm; what if I could diffuse the light coming through the openings? I had brought two diffusers with me on the trip. I’d used one of them–a white umbrella that makes for a wonderful hands-free diffuser–on a couple of occasions–once at Zion and once at Red Canyon. The other I hadn’t used to that point; it was an over-sized disk reflector-diffuser. Could I possibly rig something up that would solve my exposure problem? It was a worth a try.
I ran back down to the car and grabbed both diffusers and ran all the way back up to the outside of the openings. I then spent several minutes trying to prop the diffusers up in a way that they would both stay in place and block all of the light that was streaming through. I thought I’d accomplished the task and ran back down to the cave. Nope. There was still direct sunlight hitting the walls. Back up to the diffusers I went and adjusted them…and they fell down. So I started over again. After another few minutes I thought I’d done what was necessary and ran back down. This time, it looked good. I quickly gathered up my tripod-mounted camera, took it over to the other side and set up. Perfect. No direct sunlight and I instantly remembered why I had preferred this side the previous day.
When I finished at Windstone, I was feeling pretty pleased with myself, given my moment of inspiration regarding the diffusers. I moved on to Piano Rock and Arch Rock. The light was becoming problematic at this point and when I wrapped up there I decided that the morning’s shoot was over. I’d take some petroglyph shots at Atlatl Rock that afternoon, when it was in full shade, but until then it was time to put the camera away.
I drove back to the Scenic Drive to scout Striped Rock and Pink Canyon, to see if they were worthy destinations for the next morning. After Day 11, I had only one more morning at Valley of Fire; my plane flew out of Las Vegas early on the afternoon of Day 12.
Striped Rock and Pink Canyon are on opposite sides of the road, nearly a mile from the nearest official parking area. It was hot as blazes, but I was unencumbered by photo gear and made good time. I walked up a dry wash some ways and then wandered back and found myself staring at Striped Rock. Definitely worth a return trip. In fact, even though the best view of the rock was west-facing, I thought I might be able to shoot it late that afternoon, before I returned to the Fire Wave for sunset. I then crossed the road and took the dry wash into Pink Canyon. Within seconds, even though the light was awful, I knew that this is where tomorrow morning’s shoot would take place. The narrow slot canyon was filled with sculpted sandstone. The walls weren’t very high so I doubted I’d have much more than an hour from dawn until the sun penetrated the slot canyon. But it was a must shoot.
Mid-afternoon I made my way to Atlatl Rock and climbed the staircase up to where the rock’s petroglyphs could be viewed. Protective encumbrances–necessary because, clearly, some people had defaced the rock itself–made photographing the glyphs a bit challenging, but I’d rather photography be utterly impossible than have the rock art left unprotected.
When I was done at Atltal it was late afternoon. I decided to see if Striped Rock could be photographed. Cirrus clouds had made their way into the sky, producing a potentially interesting backdrop. I rapidly made my way down the road to Striped Rock. The sun was behind the rock but not by much. My concern was that, if I waited too long, I’d miss out on setting up at the Fire Wave for sunset, and that was my higher priority. So I did what I could with Striped Rock that afternoon. You can see the impact of the sun, just below the rock face on the left-hand side. It was a difficult exercise in exposure.
It was time to return to the Fire Wave. I had been there, briefly, at sunset two days previous, but I hadn’t really had the opportunity to explore the location properly…and I had been dealing with a bald sky. That would not be the case this evening, clearly. I got there in plenty of time and moved around to check out all of the possibilities. I actually had to wait for the shadow line to creep up the rocks in the background before shooting was appropriate. (I probably could have waited things out at Striped Hill for another 30 minutes or so, as it turned out.)
But it was worth the wait. For one of the only–maybe the only–times while I was at Valley of Fire I had to deal with some other people intruding on my line of sight. They had as much right to be there as I did, of course. And eventually they moved on, just in time to allow me to take advantage of excellent light and a very nice sky.
It had been, on balance, a good day. I had just one more morning to go.