Posted by: kerryl29 | August 6, 2012

Day 11: Crazy Hill, Arches Galore and The Fire Wave

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.

Crazy Hill at Dawn, Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

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.

Fire Cave, Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

Thunderstorm Arch is very close to the Fire Cave, and that was my next stop.

Thunderstorm Arch, Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

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.

Glowing Cave, Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

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.

Windstone, Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

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.

Windstone, Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

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.

Petroglyphs, Atlatl Rock, Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

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.

Striped Rock, Valley of Fire state Park, Nevada

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.

Fire Wave at Dusk, Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

Fire Wave at Dusk, Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

It had been, on balance, a good day.  I had just one more morning to go.

Next:  Finale – Pink Canyon



  1. So SO many stunning photos!

    • Thanks very much, Frank.

  2. I am a rock girl, meaning I collect rocks and have a fondness for the striped ones.I would love this place. Like your story-telling, your point of views, the light, the clouds the sky , the land all make for great compositions. You enable us to join you on the adventure-thank you!

    • Thanks, Jane. If you like rocks, yes–you would absolutely love Valley of Fire.

  3. Great shots once again! It’s always nice when you can put an idea into place and it works out!

    • Thanks, Michael. Yes, it was great that everything came together at Windstone. I’m really fond of that shot.

  4. Those rock formations are incredible, love the way you have photographed them.

    • Thanks very much, Leanne.

  5. Wow. Amazing!

  6. Stunning photos again Kerry…the one thing I have noticed is…I can almost hear the silence. Truly a sight to behold and an unforgettable experience.

    • Thanks very much, David. That’s a very perceptive point on your part. The vast majority of the time there was no audible sound when these images were made except (occasionally) the wind.

  7. Incredible photos, Kerry…this has been a beautiful series…what a treasure.

    • Thanks very much, Scott!

      • You are most welcome….

  8. The colors are just other worldly… love the stripes and caves. Great write up.

  9. It may be a cliché to say so, but some of these formations really do look to me as if they’d been painted. Some might call it another case of life imitating art, except that here the “life” came way before there was any art.

    Steve Schwartzman

    • Steve–agreed. There are places there that really do appear as though someone’s been busy with paint and a (very large) brush. The Nike-like “swoosh” at Striped Hill, for instance…

  10. Absolutely stunning images, Kerry. To be able to walk around the caves and rock formations like you did…is my goal someday. Now that I’ve been to the “iconic” spots in the parks, I am itching to get down into the canyons. I want to be face to face with the rocks, caves, hoodoos. What you were able to do in Valley of Fire State Park is so exciting. Your story of capturing Windstone was fascinating and informative. I’m glad you got the shot you wanted!
    Also….that Fire Wave is just amazing! I have to see that! Your photos of it are spectacular/ I love the sunset skies behind it too.

    • Thanks very much, Judy. All of the places that I featured in this VOF post are anywhere from readily to extremely accessible to anyone. You just have to know where to look.

      BTW, the Fire Wave shots–are actually facing southeast. The sun was actually setting behind me and to the right. Just a reminder of the age-old adage–always remember to look behind you. A few of my favorite shots at sunrise/sunset are actually looking away from the sunrise/sunset itself.

  11. […] Hill–just to the western side of the road–before venturing into Pink Canyon.  I had shot at Striped Hill briefly the previous afternoon, but under less than ideal conditions, so I wanted to capture the […]

  12. Thanks for bringing alive more great memories for this under-appreciated State Park…. may it remain as pristine as it was back in my memories from the early 90s. Your photos are truly awesome and the narratives of the preparation that goes into them are very instructive. Thank you so much.

    • Thanks again, very much. Valley of Fire, like White Sands National Monument in southern New Mexico, is one of the few places I’ve been to that actually exceeded my extremely lofty expectations. It’s a much underappreciated locale, IMO.

      BTW, I visited your blog…the pictures of Bandon Beach sure brought back some memories of the Oregon Coast (only been once, for a few days, three years ago), one of the most enthralling places I’ve ever visited.

      • I still haven’t figured out what I did right to end up here on the Oregon Coast. It’s a pretty magical place. Thanks for checking it out! I have to admit that I feel quite inadequate compared to your photography, but plan to follow your blog for all the great hints in addition to some pretty fantastic images.

        • Absolutely no reason to feel inadequate, compared to me or anyone else. If there’s to be any kind of measuring stick, the one I’d recommend is comparing your results with what you’d like to achieve (regardless of what anyone else is doing, most definitely including me). If you feel you’re coming up short in that self-comparison, I guarantee that you can close–if not entirely eliminate–the gap. If my blog can play any role at all, however small, in that process, I’ll be quite satisfied.

  13. Reblogged this on makmomo56dotcom and commented:
    Now that’s my kind of places,love to be out there

  14. enjoyed the photos

    • Thanks very much!

  15. thanks for your photos

    • My pleasure–thanks for taking the time to leave a comment.

  16. What beautiful photos! You have an incredible eye for capturing the awe of your surroundings. I’m planning a trip to Valley of Fire later this month, and I’m curious–are visitors able to enter the park grounds before dawn? Sunrise at this time of year is around 5:30, yet the park’s website says they don’t open until 8am. Are entrances barred before then?

    • Thanks for the kind words about my photography; they’re greatly appreciated.

      Red VoF and access…it’s been several years since I’ve been there, but back then I was able to get into the park every day before dawn via the northern entrance (the one closest to Overton, NV); there was no barrier of any kind, and as far as I know that hasn’t changed.

      • That’s good to know, thank you!

  17. […] a good plan, but it was flawed, as I found out when I returned to Windstone on the morning of the next day.  I climbed up to the chamber from my preferred side–the non-iconic side.  There were two […]

Please feel free to comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: