Posted by: kerryl29 | June 21, 2021

Desert Southwest: An Introduction

Late in April I departed for a photo trip of about eight days to Arizona and Utah. I hadn’t been to the desert Southwest to photograph since taking a trip to Utah and Nevada in the spring of 2012 and spending some time in northern Arizona in the fall of the same year. So it’s been awhile. Jason Templin, who photographed with me in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan last fall, was my companion again on this trip. I drove from Houston to Colorado Springs, where Jason lives with his family, and from there we drove a four-wheel drive vehicle to Page, Arizona, which was the jumping off point for our photographic itinerary. (The trip from Houston to Page, by way of Colorado Springs, was 1500-something miles and took three days.)

Stud Horse Point, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Utah
Cottonwood Intimate, Coyote Gulch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

This was, in many ways, unlike any photo trip I had embarked on before. For one thing, the vast majority of the time was to be spent camping. Given the remoteness of several of the places on our itinerary (more on the entire notion of a fixed itinerary below), this was a necessity. Some of these spots simply weren’t close enough to any formal–or even informal–lodging to make any alternative viable. And since the decision was made early on in the planning (we first started talking about making this trip last year) to retain as much flexibility as possible, booking lodging was effectively out of the question.

Lower Calf Creek Falls, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
White Pocket Black & White, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

I hadn’t camped since I was in my teens and was a bit trepidatious about the whole thing, and I’ll likely devote a later thematic post to the subject of camping extensively on a photo trip, based on this experience, in the coming weeks. I want to emphasize that this was camping–as, “in a tent, with no services”–not RVing. Potential misgivings aside, I fully signed on to the idea, meaning, I knew, at least theoretically, what I was getting into. Spoiler alert: it wasn’t a total catastrophe or anything like that.

White Pocket, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
Sunset Point, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Another difference from the norm: I more or less turned the raw planning over to Jason, on the theory that he knew this area far, far better than I did. I had been to only one of the locations (Capitol Reef National Park) that was on the list of possible places to visit and that was 23 years ago. Jason had been to more than half of the places on the prospective list, knew where they were located and had a good feel for the logistics, having visited the general area multiple times. Don’t misunderstand, I was part of the planning process, but I deferred almost entirely to Jason when he asked for my thoughts as to where we should go. This was the flip side of the UP experience; there, I took the lead because I was highly familiar with most of the locations we would explore while Jason had never been to the area at all.

Blue Valley Moonrise, Skyline View, Wayne County, Utah
Clay Beds, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

A third distinction from the typical scenario, hinted at above, was how fluid the itinerary was. We discussed this at length prior to making the trip; we visited areas, all of which had multiple plausible options. We had drawn up a a list of locations that were viable choices for each of three or four areas we would visit on the trip; all were reasonably doable geographically and physically, but various specific conditions that we might run into in real time might make some spots better options than others. We decided to wait until we were there to make hard and fast decisions about exactly where to go and when.

Little Cut, Coconino County, Arizona
Spooky Canyon, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

There were two broad exceptions to the above maximum flexibility rule, places we had decided in advance that we absolutely wanted to see. One was White Pocket, located in Vermillion Cliffs National Monument in north central Arizona. The other was Coyote Gulch, in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah. The other locations on our list would work around these two focal points. I will dedicate specific posts to both of these locations moving forward.

Spooky Canyon Black & White, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
White Pocket Black & White, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

A four-wheel drive vehicle was an absolute must on this trip; roughly half of the places we visited either required one or were far, far less risky to attempt to reach with four-wheel drive. Rough roads were an issue, so clearance was as important as four-wheel drive in some spots and we ran into a couple of places–most notably the road to/from White Pocket–where deep sand was a major issue. Four-wheel drive served us well.

Broken Bow Arch, Willow Gulch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
Blue Valley Black & White, Skyline View, Wayne County, Utah

One of the broad goals of the trip was to experience as much variety as the area provided and I think we did a pretty good job fulfilling that desire. We saw fascinating colorful rock formations, extraordinary riparian gulches, slot canyons, phenomenal overlooks, waterfalls, blooming cacti, arches and natural bridges and more abstract scenes than I can recount.

Rock Hills Abstract, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
Little Wildhorse Canyon Abstract Black & White, San Rafael Swell, Utah

The opportunities for making compelling monochrome images were more numerous, I think, on this trip than any I have previously undertaken. I generally think of black and white landscape opportunities as being present when natural contrast is high, and there were plenty of times when that description was fulfilled, but the subject matter itself–the plethora of things with interesting textures, lines, patterns and shapes–was so numerous that even without a lot of contrast I found myself thinking “black & white” on a regular basis.

White Pocket Abtract Black & White, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
Hole-in-the-Rock Road Black & White, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

Anyone who has photographed in and around the Colorado Plateau is familiar with the unique reflected light that the area is renowned for. We saw that repeatedly, most obviously in the slot canyons we traversed, but elsewhere as well.

Little Wildhorse Canyon, San Rafael Swell, Utah
Willow Gulch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

What I’ve included in this introductory post is a small, more or less random, set of images from the trip. Many more will follow in the coming weeks as I present a chronological diary of the trip, which will be interrupted–perhaps frequently–by thematic posts that dig into one of a number of matters that don’t necessarily fit neatly into the linear tale. I hope you’ll stick around for the ride and enjoy the presentation.

Swiss Cheese Falls Reflections, Coyote Gulch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
White Pocket Sunrise, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona


  1. This introduction to the trip has whet my appetite for all the details…and all the images. As you indicated, the variety of subject matter available will certainly make for interesting descriptions of the places you visited.

    • Thanks, Ellen. There will be much more–text and images–in the coming weeks.

  2. These photographs are so excellent and varied. I love the contrasts and interesting angles you took them from. Thanks for sharing these!

    • Thanks very much!

  3. Such beautiful photos of a great area! Those slot canyon hikes are definitely unique – I went on one a few years back and loved it, despite some claustrophobic moments haha.

    • Thanks very much!

      Yeah, slot canyons aren’t ideal for those with claustrophobia. Fortunately, I don’t suffer from that affliction. We spent significant time in three slots (only photographed in two) on this trip and I’ve been in six or seven all told over the years. Spooky and Peek-a-Boo Canyons, both in GSENM, have some major choke points in them.

      • I’d love to do more slot canyon hikes someday. I actually found it to be good therapy for overcoming claustrophobia! 🙂

  4. Very nice selection of shots, Kerry. For a small place, Stud Horse Point is an excellent location. I really enjoyed my visit this Spring. It doesn’t seem to be very well known, which is great as far as I’m concerned! Looking forward to seeing more from your trip!

    • Thanks, Steve.

      We had very little time at Stud Horse. It was the first place we visited on the entire trip, following an all-day drive from Colorado Springs and we got up to the point itself (just finding the access road was moderately tricky, as it’s unmarked) maybe 15 minutes before the sun set. Never having been there before, it would have been nice to have had some time to do some scouting, but that just wasn’t in the cards as the light was changing dramatically by the minute. All told, we were probably on site for a half an hour or so.

  5. This scenery just blows me away with the brilliant colours. Doubt I could access much of it with a walker and poor walking ability, so thank you for allowing me to live vicariously through your written description and photos.

  6. Beautiful.

  7. That Arizona~Utah region is fantastic. At times I wish I’d settled there, but that’s what visiting’s for. You must’ve been thrilled.

    • It was a good trip, no question. I’ve been to the area before, multiple times, but it had been awhile, and we penetrated more deeply than I had previously. Most of the locations we visited were well off the beaten track; many required 4WD and/or a significant amount of hiking. There were a number of spots we’d hoped to visit and photograph that we had to bypass, largely due to time constraints, so we may try and rectify that at some point in the future. Regardless, this was a very good trip and I’m extremely glad I went.

  8. Beautiful!

    • Thanks very much!

  9. […] I mentioned last time, the trip to Arizona and Utah was preceded by a two-day drive from Houston to Colorado Springs. On […]

  10. Beautiful pics of Utah, I really like your Blue Valley Moonrise Pic.

    • Thanks very much!

  11. […] I mentioned in the introduction to this series, Jason and I drove from Colorado Springs to Page, Arizona on the first day of the […]

  12. […] everything down and loaded up the car to begin the trek to White Pocket. As I mentioned in the introduction to this chronology, White Pocket, located within Vermillion Cliffs National Monument in […]

  13. […] the morning of the next) or head out. Given the flexibility in our itinerary (as described in the introduction to this series of posts), either option was a legitimate possibility. We decided to let the conditions decide, and since […]

  14. […] the first morning of the desert Southwest trip, while photographing sunrise at Little Cut, I was in the process of packing up to leave when I […]

  15. […] Sometimes things just come together, in a manner that really can’t be planned. This doesn’t happen very often, but when it does occur it helps to be in a position to take advantage of it. This transpired during the photo shoot at Spooky Canyon, part of this past spring’s trip to the desert Southwest. […]

  16. […] the spring, a trip to the desert southwest provided another set of […]

  17. […] with whom I had photographed in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in the fall of 2020 and in the Arizona and Utah deserts in the spring of 2021, dealt with a winter storm of his own (in the Rockies) and drove from his home in Colorado to meet […]

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