I can’t remember when I saw my first image of the Anasazi ruins called “House on Fire” (HOF). Maybe it was in the near-legendary “Photographing the Southwest” books by Laurent Martres or perhaps the famous David Muensch photo…but no matter what the source, what I do remember is being awestruck by the image of an ancient cliff dwelling seemingly being engulfed by fire. Not only was it an incredible visual but it also appealed to my life-long interest in ancient history and American Indians. Well, a few weeks ago I had the chance to visit this iconic site and I’d like to share with you my House on Fire Ruins Photo Guide and Tips: Burning Down the House! (My compliments to the “Talking Heads”)
My first impression when I stood before the ruin was that, yes, by God…it really does look like the ruin has fire roaring out of its roof! I had to take a few moments and ponder about the ancient Anasazi who choose this spot to build…was it simply because this was a south facing alcove that would be cool in the summer and warmed by the sun in winter? Or did that builder appreciate the incredible way the light reflected off the roof of the alcove and decided that this would be his home. How many generations lived here over the centuries…how many hours did they spend gazing at the ceiling enjoying the spectacle?
After a few minutes of sitting with my son in front of the ruin taking it all in, I finally started to concentrate on photography. Once I did so, it didn’t take me long to realize why all the shots I’d seen before of House on Fire are so darn similar. It’s because that the perception of fire shooting out of the roof of the house is really only apparent from a very limited location…even moving a couple feet from the ‘sweet spot’ degrades the illusion. I took hundreds of shots from different locations around the site but after reviewing them, there are only a few that I thought were outstanding…and yes, everyone of them turned out to be taken from that same specific spot…like the shot above.
So as a photographer, well… this location is a ‘one-trick-pony’. Don’t get me wrong, you can get an incredible shot here…you would swear that the stone ruins are blazing when the reflective light hits it just right. However, you will be hard-pressed to come up with a stunning image that is significantly different from the ‘standard’ shot…but don’t let that stop you, the ‘standard’ shot is amazing and what photographer wouldn’t want it in their portfolio?!
Directions to the site and photo tips for my fellow photographers:
- The most important thing is to be here at the right time. The perception of ‘fire’ is the result of sunlight reflecting off of the wall on the opposite side of the wash. This reflected light only occurs in late morning. If you get there too early, the light won’t yet be on the opposite wall and if you are too late the site will be in direct sunlight, which will ‘wash-out’ the fire effect.
- In July, the light is perfect about 11am and it lasts about an hour.
- The second pre-requisite is that the weather has to be clear. If clouds are obstructing the sun, you will loose the reflected light which is critical for the shot.
- My third tip would be to photograph the nearby “Fallen House Ruin” first in the morning and then drive to House on Fire (26 miles/30 minutes travel time from trailhead to trailhead). You should be able to do so and still be at HOF before 11am.
- If you haven’t made this hike before and you aren’t on a tour with a guide, then I would suggest that have GPS with you.
- The closest town is Blanding (about 25 miles away). There are a couple of hotels here you could stay at. The next nearest town is Mexican Hat, about 40 miles away.
- House on Fireis located just off of UT 95 about halfwaybetweenBlanding and Natural Bridges National Monument on County Road 263. When driving on UT 95, look for CR263 just east of mile marker 102 on the north side of the road.
- Don’t be tricked by a sign for ‘Mule Canyon Ruins‘- this is NOT the right spot.
- Turn north ontoCR263 (it is a dirt road) and you will immediately see a BLM sign and kiosk on the left.
- Stop and pay your fee ($2/person as of July 2013).
- There is a small car parking area less than 3/10 of a mile down CR263 on the right. You can park here or you can continue a few hundred yards to the bottom of the hill where there is parallel parking available for a couple vehicles.
- At the bottom of the hill, you will find a small trailhead marker (on your left).
- Geographic coordinates at the trailhead: N37.53739 – W109.73203
- Here is a link to the trailhead on Google Maps.
- Start your hike by descending into the wash (on the left/west side of the road) and walk west along the stream bed. The trail meanders to the west/northwest.
- House on Fire is about one mile from the trailhead (about 40 minutes) just before the canyon turns due north. It is located on a ledge to your right (north) about 60 feet above the floor of the wash. It can be hard to see from the bottom, so just keep looking up and to your right.
- You have to scramble a bit up some slickrock to reach the ledge but there are some rock cairns to show you the way.
- So, where exactly is the ‘sweet spot’ that I’m talking about? The photo below shows where to set up.
I’d suggest taking a copy of a HOF photo with you…then walk around the site with the picture in front of you until you find where you need to set your tripod.
- There are actually three or so structures under the ledge, but the one on the far right has the best “flames” over it
- Personally, I think a vertical orientation for your composition is the best way to emphasize the ‘flames’ in the sandstone ceiling
- Lenses: A fisheye can be fun to use here. I also used 16-35mm zoom (most shots were taken at about 21mm). Note..these lenses were used on a full frame sensor DSLR…you will need to account for the crop factor if you are using a camera with a smaller sensor.
- HDR is useful here to fully capture the highlights and shadows. Even with HDR, it will be difficult to include the sky in your shot and frankly, I think the shot is best with it excluded.
- Take your time and use your camera’s Live View feature to ensure that your focus is sharp from front to back.
- There are some handprints painted on the wall in a small alcove to the left of the ruins…worth a look.
- A green rectangular metal register box (actually a surplus Army ammo box) is chained to a tree near the ledge’s edge. It is interesting to look thru it and see what other hikers have written and see how many countries they had come from. Don’t forget to jot a note down yourself!
- If you have time after photographing HOF, there are at least 5 more ruins I know of within the next 3 miles further down the wash. None of them are necessarily photogenic, but they are interesting nonetheless.
- Post-processing: If you catch the reflected light on a cloudless day, you will likely be pretty happy with the colors and saturation. However, by increasing the contrast and adjusting the brightness/darkness of your color palette, you can easily enhance the ‘fire.’ Have fun with it!
As I was packing up to leave, a local guide, Jon Fuller of Moab Photo Tours and two clients also arrived at the site. Jon was very friendly and readily shared some tips and stories. I think my son enjoyed listening to Jon more than he did exploring the site, but then again, photography should be about much more than just pictures, right?
Have fun and keep shooting!
House on Fire Ruins Photo Guide and Tips