Posted by: kerryl29 | August 29, 2022

Return to the Desert: Cottonwood Cove

On the first full day of this trip, I was aroused by the alarm on my phone in the freezing cold of our rented SUV’s interior. It was still dark and very cold, and there was a pretty strong incentive not to emerge from the relative warmth of the sleeping bag. But we had come on this trip to photograph, so I slipped out of the bag, found my hiking boots and got them on, then emerged from the cold car into the even colder outdoors. I called to Jason through the tent and as soon as I was certain he was awake I retreated to the car to get my backpack and tripod, as well as some food and water as I figured we’d be out until at least midday.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the Cottonwood Cove section of Coyote Buttes North is a designated wilderness area. That means, among other things, that there are no maintained trails. As we climbed a sandy dune area into the cove, we followed some footprints that had probably been there for a week or more, made by earlier visitors. We had no predetermined spot set for a sunrise shoot. Jason had a vague idea of where to go, based on his previous experience at Cottonwood Cove, but since that previous experience consisted of exactly one day several years prior, “vague” is probably understating the case.

The light was coming up, slowly, as we trudged along. Given how cold it was–almost certainly still well below 20 degrees (F)–it actually felt good to move around and we hiked for something like 20 minutes before finally settling on a spot that amounted to an overlook. With a completely clear sky, the sunrise was going to be only so enticing.

I set myself up on a ledge of slick rock, overlooking a series of tent-shaped rock formations. As the sun came up, the southeast-facing sides of the rock formations started to light up and I captured the scene while shivering through my clothing. Fortunately, there was virtually no wind–it would have been unbearable if the wind had been blowing at any level of consequence–but it was still extremely chilly.

This was the only image I made at sunrise, and I wasn’t particularly enthralled with it, but I had reason to hope that the photo opportunities would improve as the day moved along.

Cottonwood Cove, Sunrise, Coyote Buttes South, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

`It already felt modestly warmer when we decided to move on from our sunrise spot. With no trails and little preconceived idea of where to go, we just kind of wandered around as the topography allowed. Deep canyons, with occasional accompanying sheer drop-offs, were quite constricting in terms of the routes we could take, so had to watch our step.

We reached a spot overlooking a canyon. I was intrigued by the colorful abstract patterns, illuminated by reflected light, on the canyon walls, probably a quarter of a mile or more across the expanse. I pulled out my telephoto lens and captured the scene. For scale, the dark objects dotting parts of the frame are stunted trees, roughly 6-8 feet in height.

Cottonwood Cove, Coyote Buttes South, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

Abstracts were, to a greater or lesser extent, the name of the game in Cottonwood Cove. While I often render abstract scenes in black and white–and I did so again, on a few occasions, on this day–color was a critical component of many of the images made while we were in the Cove.

Cottonwood Cove, Coyote Buttes South, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
Cottonwood Cove, Coyote Buttes South, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

Reflected light pulled out the pinks, purples, reds and yellows embedded in the rocky surfaces that surrounded us. The lines and striations were an added bonus.

Cottonwood Cove, Coyote Buttes South, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

Now and again, bits and pieces of vegetation served as compositional accents.

Cottonwood Cove, Coyote Buttes South, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

Intimate scenes not only weren’t neglected, they were arguably the highlight of the day’s session.

Lichen Intimate, Cottonwood Cove, Coyote Buttes South, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
Cottonwood Cove, Coyote Buttes South, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

Care was taken not to tread heavily on any of the fins, lest they crumble underneath our feet. We saw plenty of evidence that others had not been so cautious.

The lines, shapes and colors of the rock were endlessly fascinating.

Cottonwood Cove, Coyote Buttes South, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

Some of the intimate spots we discovered lent themselves to compositions procured from various angles and with a broad array of focal lengths.

Cottonwood Cove, Coyote Buttes South, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
Cottonwood Cove, Coyote Buttes South, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
Cottonwood Cove, Coyote Buttes South, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

Some spots that we stumbled upon represented a kaleidoscope of colors.

Cottonwood Cove, Coyote Buttes South, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
Cottonwood Cove, Coyote Buttes South, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
Cottonwood Cove, Coyote Buttes South, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

Though we were wandering around with little direct purpose, we had no concern about finding our way back to the spot where the tent was pitched as I had brought my handheld GPS with me and had marked where the car was parked. This approach had saved our bacon at Coyote Gulch the previous year and so we implemented the process again on this day, without hesitation. It was nice to know that we had the GPS in our back pocket, figuratively and literally.

At one point, early in the afternoon, we found ourselves overlooking another canyon–that we dubbed “Rainbow Cove.” On the wall, far away and somewhat below us, we saw an absolutely fascinating colorful wall, which had the ambience of an abstract mural. Serendipitously, it was in even light–open shade. I wandered out to a ledge and, at 400 mm, produced the set of images that you see below.

Rainbow Cove, Cottonwood Cove, Coyote Buttes South, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
Rainbow Cove, Cottonwood Cove, Coyote Buttes South, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
Rainbow Cove, Cottonwood Cove, Coyote Buttes South, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

I was thrilled with what I was able to capture, but Jason, who had no lens nearly long enough to produce anything comparable, appeared to be out of luck. The spot I had descended to was as close as we could get to the wall from where we were.

I felt bad about this and perhaps it inspired me to examine the area more closely. Following the line of the canyon rim, I thought we might be able to get much nearer to the wall. I wasn’t certain, but I thought it was worth a look. I made the suggestion to Jason and he seemed ambivalent about making the trip but when I pressed him it became clear that he was concerned that we’d be wasting my time if we made the exploration, since I had already been able to photograph the wall. After all, if we spent time doing this, it would be time we wouldn’t be checking out something else. While I appreciated the selfless thought on his part, I said “nonsense.” I wanted him to have the opportunity to photograph the wall–it was clear that he wanted to do so. Besides, I said, if we could reach a close perspective, there would almost certainly be compositions that I’d discover that I hadn’t been able to see from a distance. Once he was sure I didn’t mind, Jason eagerly agreed to the exploration of the route that I thought might provide us access to a ledge I’d spotted that saw was more or less directly in front of the wall.

We hiked along the rim for roughly a half-mile and, sure enough, when we rounded a bend we could see a route that would allow us to climb down to a ledge that would give us a terrific vantage point from which we could photograph the wall. We made several stops on the ledge; it turned out to be a great opportunity.

Rainbow Cove, Cottonwood Cove, Coyote Buttes South, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
Rainbow Cove, Cottonwood Cove, Coyote Buttes South, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
Rainbow Cove, Cottonwood Cove, Coyote Buttes South, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
Rainbow Cove, Cottonwood Cove, Coyote Buttes South, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

We were both pretty pleased with what he’d been able to do in Rainbow Cove and we agreed that we should head back to the campsite, to refill our water bottles and pick up some additional supplies before heading back out for the late afternoon and sunset. So that’s what we did.

The process was pretty simple. We actually recognized much of the terrain we needed to traverse and consulted the GPS only a time or two, just to make sure we were heading in the right direction. We did what we needed to do back at the campsite and, in short order, plunged back into Cottonwood Cove.

We returned to several spots that we had scouted earlier in the day–mostly places that Jason had found when he had visited the area a few years earlier.

Half Rock, Cottonwood Cove, Coyote Buttes South, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
Cottonwood Cove, Coyote Buttes South, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
Cottonwood Cove Black & White, Coyote Buttes South, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
Cottonwood Cove, Coyote Buttes South, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

From an extremely cold morning, a very pleasant day had emerged. Winds were light to non-existent and it was quite comfortable. We had ditched our jackets, gloves and winter hats by mid-morning.

The light was improving by the minute and we hastened to take advantage of it as we made a kind of giant circle in our travels.

Control Tower, Cottonwood Cove, Coyote Buttes South, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
Cottonwood Cove, Coyote Buttes South, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
Cottonwood Cove, Coyote Buttes South, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
Cottonwood Cove, Coyote Buttes South, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
Cottonwood Cove Black & White, Coyote Buttes South, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
Half Rock, Cottonwood Cove, Coyote Buttes South, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

As the sun went down we found ourselves adjacent to the formation dubbed Half Rock, for the third time that day. Just across a rocky expanse was another formation that I thought would work for the post-sunset glow. A few clouds had drifted into the sky above the formation, so I set up, with a pothole in the foreground to my left, and waited until the modest dusky glow reached its peak.

Cottonwood Cove Sunset, Coyote Buttes South, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

That was the final image of the day. We weren’t far from our campsite–a half-mile at most, over a well-known quasi-path that we’d trod multiple times already. I packed up my gear and pulled out my headlamp, just in case it got dark before we returned. Our plan was to drive out of the Cove that evening. It would be in the pitch dark, but we’d driven the road on the way in and felt it would be no trouble to navigate. The plan was to stay at Stateline Campground that night, back on House Rock Valley Road. This was only a short distance from the trailhead to The Wave, where we’d be hiking before first light the next morning. It would mean setting the tent up in the dark, but the campground had actual campsites and there was reason to believe it wouldn’t be as cold there, as the elevation was significantly lower than Cottonwood Cove.

It had already cooled off considerably–it was another reminder (as if we needed one) of just how quickly the temperature changes in these desert environs–so I pulled out my gloves…and could only find one. I looked all around me on the ground, in all of my pockets, in my backpack…the second glove was nowhere to be found. I groaned. At some point during the day, somewhere, presumably the glove had fallen out of my pocket. I’d had it that morning, of course, but I’d taken the gloves off within an hour or so of sunrise and never put them back on. Now it was gone, and we were facing the likelihood of another frigid night and a very cold morning’s hike with me having nothing to cover one hand. And the thought of even trying to backtrack to all the places we’d been that day was an utter non-starter. We’d never be able to retrace our steps. Besides, it was about to get dark.

Jason said we should keep our eyes peeled on the hike back. I agreed, but I knew that there was almost no chance that we’d find that glove. The odds of my having dropped it on this one particular stretch (it would have had to have happened when we hiked out for our final shoot) and, if that even happened, of us seeing it in the gathering darkness, was minuscule.

I looked, of course, but it was half-hearted. We were almost back to the campsite–there was almost no ambient light at all–and I was running through my head how I’d be able to deal with things without that glove when Jason, who was walking ahead of me, turned around and flipped something at me. I caught it, instinctively….it was the missing glove. I couldn’t believe it. Apparently it had, indeed, fallen out of my pocket earlier–on the way back out to the Cove, surely. Jason had spotted it right there, reached down and picked it up and…you know the rest.

Knowing that I’d have two gloves made me feel a lot better and it definitely eased the rather lengthy trip out of Coyote Buttes North, back to House Rock Valley Road, and to the campground. There we pitched the tent…and promptly resumed the previous night’s m.o. Though it wasn’t as cold at Stateline Campground as it had been up at the Cove the previous evening, it was still plenty chilly–about 20 degrees F (and it surely dropped lower overnight). Jason slept in the tent with both zero degree sleeping bags and I took up residence in the back of the SUV with the two 20-degree bags.

We needed a good night’s sleep as we were headed to The Wave the following morning…


Responses

  1. Those colors are amazing and the quality of light so nice! Thank you for keeping your images (mostly) in color and for taking us on a beautiful journey (from the comforts of our screens). 🤩

    • Thanks very much!

  2. […] detailed in the most recent entry in this series, we camped at Stateline Campground the night before our permitted day at Coyote Buttes North. It […]


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