Posted by: kerryl29 | August 23, 2021

Desert Southwest: Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

The day this article posts I’ll be traveling to Alaska, finally fulfilling a longstanding plan to revisit that state. I’ve put together a couple of relatively brief posts to cover the next two weeks, while I’ll be gone. I should be back in the Chicago area on September 10 and plan to return to chronicling the Desert Southwest series at that time.

The morning after the day at Willow Gulch was spent photographing at one of the locations that was scouted late the previous day–a spot in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument that I’m deliberately keeping vague in terms of its specific locale. We hiked out to a spot below a canyon rim in the early morning light and waited for the sunrise. It came and, though it wasn’t exactly spectacular, it served up some nice light.

Sunrise, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

I focused my shooting attention to the south–because the compositions I liked called for me to face that direction. The view to the east, in the direction of the rising sun, was far less appealing and, as it turned out, the sunrise itself wasn’t all that remarkable, as noted above.

Sunrise, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

I actually liked what developed in the southern sky after the sun had crested the horizon. There were some nice cloud formations in that direction that took on some direct light and, eventually, the red rock checkerboard foreground and mid-ground lit up. There were a number of scattered boulders that had some attractive lichen on them as well.

Sunrise, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
Sunrise, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
Sunrise, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

As I turned to the southwest, the setting moon made an appearance.

Sunrise, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

I then moved down the slickrock canyon lip to a spot that served as an overlook of what was (to me) a fascinating series of line grooves cut into the rock face below me. We had gone to some considerable trouble to scout this location the evening before. Reaching this spot was ever-so-slightly precarious, but not dangerous as long as the rock surface is dry (it was) and care is taken (it was).

Canyon Abstract, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

Having photographed the scene with my telephoto lens, I rendered most of these images in both color and black & white. While I like the color versions, there’s no question in my mind that–as was the case at White Pocket–many of these pattern-laden compositions are more evocative in monochrome.

Canyon Abstract Black & White, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
Canyon Abstract, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
Canyon Abstract Black & White, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
Canyon Abstract, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
Canyon Abstract Black & White, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

When we were done with our morning shoot, we had to decide what to do with the rest of the day. It was partly cloudy, but the sun was out the majority of the time, so the decision was made to visit a pair of relatively nearby slot canyons–Peek-a-Boo and Spooky, by name–that are right next to one another and, unfortunately for us, pretty heavily trafficked.

As we made the drive along Hole-in-the-Rock Road on the way to the slots, I caught site of a lone tree not far off the roadbed and we stopped to check it out. I photographed the scene from multiple angles and, again, ultimately rendered the scene in both color and monochrome.

Lone Tree, Hole-in-the-Rock Road, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
Lone Tree Black & White, Hole-in-the-Rock Road, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

We drove to the parking area for the trailhead to the slot canyons and then made the relatively easy hike of about two miles to the opening of Peek-a-Boo canyon, which can only be entered by scrambling up a rather steep wall–it’s about 10 feet to get into the mouth. We managed to do this with the assistance of some of the other people who were there. While Peek-a-Boo had some interesting looking spots, the light in the canyon while we were there was pretty bad; there were hot spots all over the place from the sun in the good locations. So we looked, but didn’t photograph while in Peek-a-Boo, and navigated our way through some of the choke points in the canyon, without too much difficulty.

Before long we were out of Peek-a-Boo and in a transitional area headed toward Spooky Canyon. This was a completely different experience. For one thing, there were some incredibly narrow spots that were extremely difficult to work our way through with our gear and we had to pass our packs and tripods to one another to work through a good number of them. For another thing, the canyon had a fair number of people passing through it, many of them in pretty good-sized groups. The passages in many places are so narrow that it was very difficult to find spots to squeeze into that allowed other people to pass by.

But despite the difficulties, the other difference–and the key one–in Spooky compared to Peek-a-Boo was that there were a good number of extremely compelling locations.

Spooky Canyon, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

The sand in the canyon was an orangy-red and the reflected light, in some spots, was sublime.

Spooky Canyon, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

At one point we found a small arch, part of an antechamber that led to a special photo opportunity that I will detail in a future “Story Behind the Image” blog entry. That image is displayed below; I also rendered this shot in black & white, which is what I planned to do when this photograph was made.

Spooky Canyon, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

But the point of emphasis was on the impact of reflected light, and while we were on site there were spots in the canyon that really worked well in this regard.

Spooky Canyon, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
Spooky Canyon, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

For these images there was no question of rendering them in anything but full color, given that color was such an important element of each shot.

Spooky Canyon, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

Or was there? Well, actually, there was. For some of these images, the details, patterns and contours arguably are better expressed in monochrome.

Spooky Canyon Black & White, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

You can decide for yourself which rendition you prefer; it’s entirely subjective.

Spooky Canyon, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
Spooky Canyon Black & White, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
Spooky Canyon, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
Spooky Canyon Black & White, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

We moved along and, as we dodged hikers, continued to find interesting spots that we thought were worth photographing. Unfortunately not all of them had the same reflected light impact that we saw earlier.

Spooky Canyon, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
Spooky Canyon, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

We wrapped up at Spooky, climbed out, and hiked back to our vehicle. Jason hadn’t brought any water with him on this hike and started to flag a bit, so I more or less insisted that he drink some of my supply–I had plenty to get back to the car, where we had a huge water tank from which we were filling bottles.

Our goal for sunset was to photograph the aptly named Sunset Arch; we had GPS coordinates for it but there’s no trail to this spot, so we parked at a kind of dispersed camping/parking spot that was relatively nearby (about a mile and a half as the crow flies) from the arch. Then, with the aid of my GPS, we set out over the open desert toward the coordinates. The unit showed us drawing steadily closer, so we knew we were headed in the right direction. Good thing we had the GPS because you can’t see the arch until you’re almost on top of it, given the direction it’s oriented. We were headed toward a rocky cluster–that much we could tell. Finally, when the GPS said we were only about 500 feet from our goal, we could see the arch.

Sunset Arch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

Sunset Arch is so named because the setting sun lights up the west facing side of the impressive structure. After we arrived, we didn’t have long to wait until the arch began to take on a reddish glow. That glow grew nicer and nicer as the sun continued to sink towards the horizon. And as the sun sank, I moved closer and closer to the left hand foundation.

Sunset Arch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
Sunset Arch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

I did pull out the telephoto lens and made an image of the mountains to the south as the sun dropped.

Sunset, Hole-in-the-Rock Road, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

When I felt that I had done what I could with the arch at sunset, I walked around to the other side of the feature, just to see what it looked like. It didn’t seem as photogenic to me on that side, but as the sky to the west lit up, my opinion changed. I yelled to Jason, who was still on the other side, that he might want to head to the side where I was now set up.

Sunset Arch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
Sunset Arch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

We were thrilled with the unexpected bonus in the form of a true sunset shot series at Sunset Arch. When the light in the sky faded–it lasted for awhile–we packed up our things and began the trek back to the car. It was now quite dark, but I was prepared, both with my headlamp and the GPS. Everything seemed fine until, almost a mile into our return hike–by now it was pitch dark–we found ourselves staring at a fence. We must have drifted slightly off course and found ourselves behind some kind of cattle enclosure. We tried to hike around it but, after several minutes of frustration (unable to find the end or a break in the fence), we decided to simply go over the structure. This was a bit tricky because there was barbed wire involved, but we managed to make it work (by lowering our gear over the fence and then carefully climbing up on a fence post and jumping the wire. From there it was a short hike back to the vehicle and, as we were now used to setting the tent up in the dark, it wasn’t long before we were ready to hit the sack and get ready for a truly remarkable experience–our all-day trek into, through and out of Coyote Gulch.


Responses

  1. Amazing photos and great write up! I am hoping to be able to visit soon!

    • Thanks very much! I hope you have that opportunity sooner than later.

  2. Really beautiful

  3. How wonderful that you had the good fortune of the wonderful sunset at Sunset Arch! And that you were alert to changing conditions so you could take full advantage! I’m making a note of your comments about Spooky and Peekaboo for my upcoming visit. Hope you enjoy your Alaska trip and return safely!

    • Thanks, Steve. It’s definitely worth checking out some of the details re Spooky and Peek-a-Boo as simply entering these canyons (and/or leaving them) provides some challenges. And navigating through them (especially Spooky) can be challenging in spots as well, if you’re carrying photo gear (and I know you will be).

  4. Beautiful. 💜

    • Thanks very much!

  5. Wow. Love to go there someday.

    • Thanks! I hope you get that chance.

  6. […] what we did. We had camped not far from Sunset Arch on the previous evening, as I recounted in my last Desert Southwest entry, which wasn’t a long way from the Crack-in-the-Wall trailhead. We made the short drive before […]


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