Posted by: kerryl29 | May 24, 2012

Day 2: Towers of the Virgin, Court of the Patriarchs and the Plateau

(My apologies in advance for the length of this post.)

After shooting The Watchman at sunset from the Virgin River bridge on my first evening at Zion, I made one stop on the way back to Springdale.  My plan was to shoot the Towers of the Virgin at sunrise the following morning and I wanted to do a quick scout of the shooting location so I wouldn’t stumble around in the dark the next day.  The scene is shootable from behind the Zion Human History Museum, located between the park entrance and Canyon Junction, so I made a quick reconnaissance of the place on my way out.  It was dark, and the grounds were deserted, but I had a flashlight with me and there was enough ambient light available behind the museum to get a pretty good read on the spot.  I would be able to hit the ground running the next morning.

First Light:  The Towers of the Virgin

Sunrise was at approximately 6:30 while I was at Zion, so I rose at 5 AM to be in position behind the museum about 45 minutes prior.  I wanted to catch the scene in the soft, even light of dawn, and perhaps take a few exposures shortly after the sun cleared the canyon’s east rim.  This is another one of those “facing the wrong direction” scenes that define early and late shooting at Zion; you’re typically facing eastward at sunset and westward at sunrise to take best advantage of the light.  As a result, you’re very rarely–if ever–actually shooting a sunrise or sunset.

The forecast was for completely clear skies, but I was fortunate.  Just as the light was reaching a pre-sunrise crescendo, a few wispy clouds drifted over the Towers of the Virgin, and lit up with that familiar “dawn pink” tinge.  They provided a nice complement to the beautiful surroundings, flattered as they were by the soft light.

Towers of the Virgin at Dawn, Zion National Park, Utah

I did hang around for the post-sunrise light show.  It was fascinating to see the formation transformed as the shadow line of the opposite-facing canyon wall crept down the Towers of the Virgin as the sun slowly rose in the sky.  I took the time to shoot four vertical frames, which I stitched into a panorama.

Towers of the Virgin at Sunrise Panorama, Zion National Park, Utah

The Bus System, Part I

It was shortly after 7 AM when I wrapped up the Towers of the Virgin part of the shoot.  My next stop was the Court of the Patriarchs and this was to be my first experience with the Zion shuttle bus.  The park shuttle, at this time of the year, starts at the Zion visitor’s center–just inside the park gates, with the first bus leaving at 7 AM.  It heads up canyon at regular intervals–I’d guess that a new bus arrives approximately ten minutes after its predecessor, and during busy times of the day (mid-morning through mid-afternoon) it’s probably more like every six minutes.  As you can see on this map of Zion Canyon, from the visitor’s center, the stops are:  the Museum; Canyon Junction; Court of the Patriarchs; the Zion Lodge; the Grotto; Weeping Rock; Big Bend; the Temple of Sinawava.  The Temple of Sinawava is the last stop; from that point, the buses head back down canyon, stopping at each location in reverse order of what is listed above.  In a further attempt to limit the number of vehicles inside the park, a companion shuttle service runs through the town of Springdale, with its final stop being at the Zion visitor’s center.  In theory, this allows park visitors to access Zion Canyon without ever taking their personal vehicles inside the park.  I didn’t use the Springdale shuttle at all; its hours are somewhat more limited than the Zion shuttle and didn’t comport with my requirements.  Each day, before sunrise, I drove into the park and left my car at the Museum and picked up the Zion shuttle from there.  I’ll have more to say about the bus system in future entries.

The Court of the Patriarchs

The Court of the Patriarchs is only two stops up canyon from the Museum, and it takes less than 10 minutes to get there on the bus.  On the way there, I noted all sorts of interesting looking spots between Canyon Junction and the Court of the Patriarchs and I resolved to, somehow, get a better look at them than is possible when riding the bus.  More on that momentarily.

The bus I was on–the second of the day, I believe–was mostly empty, due to the early hour, no doubt.  I was the only one who got off at the Court of the Patriarchs.  The Patriarchs are three naturally photogenic pointy peaks, named after figures in the Old Testament (hence the “Patriarchs” moniker).  The problem is finding a good vantage point.  There’s an “official” viewpoint, about 75 yards up a steep, paved trail, easily accessible from the bus stop on the up-canyon side of the road (i.e. east).  I zipped up there and immediately didn’t like what I saw.  The foreground is made up of a group of non-descript trees–which were swaying in the copious breeze that morning–and wouldn’t adequately accent the Patriarchs at all, I decided.  I quickly descended the trail, walked across the road and followed a small path to a footbridge over the Virgin River.  I was at a significantly lower vantage point than was the case from the overlook, but I had far more foreground options.  I tested the possibility of shooting with the river–with a series of cascades–in the foreground, but couldn’t find a composition I liked.  Time was a-wastin’.  I crossed the bridge and followed one branch of the trail uphill and found myself in a meadow, of sorts, with a clear view of the Patriarchs.  The light was still shootable, but it wouldn’t be for much longer, so I scrambled to find something I liked.  I worked with a couple of options, one of which you see below.

The Court of the Patriarchs, Zion National Park, Utah

One of the nice things about a place like Zion Canyon, with its steep walls on both sides, is that–for most of the day–there will be tight scenes that are in full shade.  That makes the hours of decent shooting longer than they would otherwise be.  On my way back down the trail, I found myself in a small, lush glen.  I had missed this on the way up, partly because I was focused on the Patriarchs and partly because the scene really only revealed itself when heading back down the trail.  I was instantly captivated by a huge cottonwood tree that was simply oozing with character.  The background was still, mercifully, in shadow, though it wouldn’t be for much longer.  Within moments of taking the shot you see below, the sun started producing objectionable highlights amidst the background.

Ancient Cottonwood, Court of the Patriarchs, Zion National Park, Utah

Walking the Road

I got back to the road and paused at the empty bus stop.  What do do now?  It was mid-morning and direct sunlight was slowly filling Zion Canyon.  I decided that it was scouting time.  I had been intrigued by the glimpses of fascinating looking scenes as the bus drove along the Virgin River from Canyon Junction to the Court of the Patriarchs.  The light was going to hell anyway.  Why not, I reasoned, walk the road back toward Canyon Junction and see what might be of interest?  With private vehicles virtually absent from Zion Canyon (special allowances are made for visitors staying at the lodge) I wouldn’t have to dodge much traffic.  The buses move pretty slowly and you can hear them coming from a long way off.

Zion Floral, Zion Canyon, Zion National Park, Utah

And so I began the first leg of a journey that I would take throughout my time at Zion–walking the canyon road.  I ultimately walked every segment of the 6.2 mile road between Canyon Junction and the Temple of Sinawava except the half-mile between the Lodge and the Grotto.  I walked several segments multiple times.  I hiked the roughly 1.3 miles between Canyon Junction and the Court of the Patriarchs alone five separate times.  I found this to be some of my most memorable time at Zion.  For one thing, the occasional bus aside, I essentially had the road all to myself, save the sporadic person zipping by on a bicycle.  Zion National Park attracts roughly three million visitors annually, and the vast majority of them crowd into Zion Canyon.  Much like the experience at Yosemite National Park, this is the reason why the bus system was implemented in the first place–too many people trying to crowd into a small, beautiful, space.  The bus system naturally dictates that most of the people in the canyon are concentrated in a small number of places–around the bus stops themselves.  By spending time moving between those concentrated areas, I largely had the opportunity to experience the beauty of most of Zion Canyon by myself.

Side-lit Cottonwood, Zion Canyon, Zion National Park, Utah

I also had the opportunity, ultimately, to produce images of what I began to call “My Zion.”  This would be a recurring theme at Bryce Canyon and, to a somewhat lesser extent (given that it’s a less iconic place to begin with) Valley of Fire: taking the time to produce images of a place that were less familiar than at most of the common park photographic hot spots.  As I mentioned in the initial installment, I’m certainly not beyond hitting the iconic locations, but I always want to move beyond them, to see things–and, by extension, obtain photographs–that allow me to put my unique stamp on things, while still (hopefully) capturing the true character of a locale.  At Zion, “walking the road” allowed me to do that.

Morning Reflections, Virgin River, Zion Canyon, Zion National Park, Utah

And so I slowly made my way back toward Canyon Junction as the remainder of the morning unfolded.  I took some shots when something caught my eye that I thought would work in the available light.  In many more cases, I took mental notes of places to return to in better light.  The most notable example of this came about halfway back to Canyon Junction.  I found a spot that afforded river access near an old pull out in the road.  By now, the light was thoroughly unshootable, so I simply wandered down toward the riverside, with the hope of seeing something that might work in better light.  And that I did.  I found a wonderful place.  I was so captivated with it, in fact, that I made a mental note to be absolutely certain that I returned in even light before leaving Zion.  (More on that in the next installment.)

The Plateau

The morning was spent in Zion Canyon.  The afternoon was to be spent on the Zion Plateau.  The Plateau is the part of Zion National Park located east of the canyon itself.  The shuttle system doesn’t service the plateau, so I drove up there, through the famous Zion tunnel.  The Plateau has the feel of being on an entirely different planet than the canyon, and is much closer to a high desert environment.  The iconic location on the plateau is Checkerboard Mesa, and I dutifully photographed it from its official overlook near the east entrance to the park, as you can see below.

Checkerboard Mesa, Zion Plateau, Zion National Park, Utah

But I spent most of my time–and the rest of the afternoon–wandering around to see what sorts of interesting shots I could find that would capture the overall feel of the place.

Lone Tree, Zion Plateau, Zion National Park, Utah

I spent a fair amount of time working with wider scenics, but I found myself mostly frustrated with compositions and took relatively few shots and ultimately found that even many of the shots I did take didn’t work very well.  I found myself more drawn to intimate, semi-abstract and abstract images that I seemed to discover almost literally everywhere I looked.

Zion Plateau, Zion National Park, Utah

The range of colors, textures and curving lines in the rock intrigued me.  So too did the inability to easily distinguish size and scale in many of these naturally forming compositions.

The Heart of the Matter, Zion Plateau, Zion National Park, Utah

Every time I thought I was done shooting at a specific spot, something else caught my eye just as I was packing up my gear.

Rock Abstract, Zion Plateau, Zion National Park, Utah

I finally found myself in a location with some of the most interesting shapes, colors and lines I’ve ever seen anywhere.  I ended up shooting there until the light was completely gone.  Here are a couple of shots from that location:

Line and Form #1, Zion Plateau, Zion National Park, Utah

In the interest of providing some sense of scale, the feature you see here covered several hundred feet in length.  Here’s the back end of the above shot, from a different perspective.

Line and Form #2, Zion Plateau, Zion National Park, Utah

That puts a wrap on my first full day at Zion.  The next installment will cover sunrise from Canyon Overlook up on the Plateau, my return to the “special spot” along the Virgin River that I mentioned above, and the late afternoon and early evening spent at the Temple Sinawava and the Riverside Walk.


  1. Lovely pictures and great writeup—the thrill of the hunt, being in the right place at the right time!

    • Thanks very much!

  2. Loving your photos and makes me want to run screaming from my office chair and into the great outdoors! Have a Great Day!

    • Thanks; that’s about the highest praise someone could offer.

  3. Very nice summary and photos Kerry. I’m looking forward to installment #3.

    • Thanks, Jim. I’ll try to get the next piece up by the end of the long weekend.

  4. Good narrative Kerry. I like your intimate images best.

    • Thanks, John. I’m inclined to agree with you re the preferred images.

  5. I just loved this series of photos!! The ancient cottonwood, in particular, made me smile because I see an old face with huge, bushy eyebrows. 🙂

    • Thanks, Cindy. As I mentioned in the writeup, that tree has a lot of character. 🙂

  6. Great photos Kerry, and I know this is just the beginning, but already it has been an adventure not to be missed! I love the vignettes!

    • Thanks very much, David.

  7. Kerry, I love reading about your approach and process of taking photos – i always learn so much. The abstracts were exceptional (heart of the matter!) but I also loved the side lit cottonwood and morning reflections – magical!

    • Thanks very much, Lynn. I greatly appreciate the kind words.

      I have to be honest–that first full day at Zion wasn’t my most productive or best behind the camera. I remember being pretty frustrated with my inability to obtain what I felt were compelling compositions–particularly on the Plateau and at the Court of the Patriarchs, but elsewhere as well–despite phenomenal subject matter. The light may have been a factor, but for whatever reason I was really struggling that day. I was reminded of this as I went through that day’s images when preparing this installment and it was pretty obvious to me that, on balance, this wasn’t my best work. I’ve been slowly working through the material from the second full day and, fortunately, I think I came out of my photographic “slump.”

  8. I love seeing everything that you notice on your excursions. There are so many textures and colors out there!

    • Thanks very much. You’re absolutely right–there is no shortage of colors and textures in canyon country.

  9. Beautiful photos, Kerry…and I appreciate the other-than-iconic approach you have taken…love the abstract and often over-looked. It was a pleasure walking with you through the canyon…thank you.

    • Thanks very much, Scott.

      FWIW, we’re not done walking the canyon just yet. With luck, I’ll get the next installment up by this evening. If not, I’ll post tomorrow.

      • You’re welcome, Kerry, and I understood that you weren’t finished yet…just thoroughly enjoyed what you had already shared. 🙂

        • Hi Scott. Sorry for the delay in getting the next installment in place. I’m in the process of preparing it and hope to have it up by the end of the night, though it may slip into tomorrow.

  10. The pretty flowers are almost certainly something in the Onagraceae, or evening-primrose family.

    • Hi Steve. If you have any idea of a positive ID on the flowers, I’d love to hear it. I haven’t been able to find anything on-line. I have a wildflower guide to the Eastern U.S., but not to that part west of the Mississippi.

      I photographed evening primrose at White Sands, in New Mexico, a few years back. This might well be the same family, but I’d really like to pin down the exact species.

  11. Love the Rock Abstracts!

    • Thanks very much, Todd.

  12. […] Day 2–my first full day at Zion National Park–had been a bit frustrating photographically.  I hoped to shake off the slump on the second full day by running up to the Plateau in the dark so I could photograph sunrise from Canyon Overlook.  The half-mile long Canyon Overlook trailhead is located just east of the Zion tunnel and it was pitch dark and deserted when I arrived there, roughly one hour before sunrise.  Ambient light was improving as I hiked the trail, which traces the rim of Pine Canyon–a fairly narrow slot–on the way to the overlook.  I noted quite a number of interesting compositions that I might shoot on the way back to the trailhead. […]

  13. Really like the intimate scenes Kerry. Also enjoy the insight into your thought processes and decisions.

  14. Very nice shots! It really sounds like a peaceful and zen place to visit!

    • Thanks, Michael. It’s a very, very special place, and it certainly can produce Zen-like feelings.

  15. […] from the West Rim Trail greatly resembles the Zion Plateau–the area east of the canyon that I’d visited on my first full day in the park. West Rim Trail, Zion National Park, […]

  16. Kerry….such awesome photos! They are all phenomenal. Your rock abstracts are outstanding. It’s so much fun to read about your trip after we have returned from Zion and Bryce! We can relate to a lot of your points! I shot a lot of rock strata and formations in the plateau too. I just could not get enough of them! 😉

    • Thanks, Judy. I’m very much looking forward to seeing the images you brought back.

  17. […] Day 2:  Towers of the Virgin, Court of the Patriarchs and the Plateau […]

  18. Scott pointed me to your site and I’m pretty thrilled that he did. I first fell in love with Zion in the fall of 1978 before it became so popular. I was very disappointed during a return trip in 1991. I like your approach to avoiding the crowds and the traffic very much. Your pictures are breathtaking. Can’t wait to journey with you through one of my favorite areas of this country.

    I fell in love with your shot of the Virgin River in this post. I think one of my own all time favorites also features the river, but it’s before the entrance to the park and way back before that little convenience store sprung up out there.

    • Thanks very much for the extremely kind words (and thanks to Scott for referring you here).

      I understand what you mean about the crowds at Zion, but they can be avoided, if not eliminated altogether, if you’re willing to avoid the peak times of year (and, to an extent, times of day). The place was not teaming with activity, for the most part, when I was there in the first half of May this year, though there was one day–a Saturday, not surprisingly–where things were pretty crowded around the visitor’s center area in early afternoon. Other than that, however, it really wasn’t problematic, especially at the margins of the day, when I do the bulk of my shooting. The key, I think, is to avoid the summer, limit the weekends and get up early/stay out late.

      As I tried to suggest, the implementation of the bus system at Zion has actually helped make the canyon feel much less crowded, if you’re willing/able to go by foot. I was first at Zion in early September of 1998–shortly before the bus system–and the place felt extremely crowded, what with all the cars (and RVs) and the constant jockeying for parking, etc. Now, you can really feel like you’re by yourself when you’re walking the canyon road. I’d love to get back there in the fall at some point…

  19. […] a way, it reminded me of how I felt on the numerous occasions when I was walking the road between bus stops in Zion Canyon at Zion National Park in Utah.  There was […]

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