Utah Photography Expedition 2021:  Day One / Bryce Canyon and Escalante Pictographs

Utah Photography Expedition 2021: Day One / Bryce Canyon and Escalante Pictographs

In my first blog in this series, I recapped the long and challenging path that led up to this Utah photo trip. But all that was finally behind me late on the afternoon of May 11th as my flight touched down in Las Vegas

Getting There…

Bypassing the slot machines at the airport, I made my way to the rental car desk, grabbed my AWD SUV and headed to the closest Walmart to load up on my photo trip necessities: Water and Cliff Bars.

My first hotel was over four hours away. It was a long drive at the end of an even longer day but finally, around 10 pm, my Waze App told me I was at my hotel. But as I looked up and down the dark two-lane deserted road, there wasn’t anything to see…and there certainly wasn’t a sign for my hotel. I finally gave up and just pulled into a dark roadside motel that Waze said was in the right location. The name on the sign over the door wasn’t the one I was looking for but I tried the lobby anyway. Not a soul in the lobby, no one was at the desk, but there was a clipboard on the counter with some envelopes clipped to it. One of them had my name scribbled on it and a key was inside. Yup…welcome to the hospitality industry in rural Utah in the age of Covid!

The skies were clear, which meant that the Milky Way would be out so I crashed for less than five hours and by 3:30 am I was hiking down the Navajo Loop Trail at Bryce Canyon. Unfortunately, my silly need for sleep meant that I’d have less than 90 minutes to shoot the Milky Way before the sky started to lighten.

Bryce Canyon

“Out on the Rim” My technique eight years ago was pretty primitive: This is s single 30- second exposure.
Bryce Canyon Milky Way Night Photography
“The Portal” My technique is a bit more sophisticated than back in 2014. I took one long exposure at a low ISO for the foreground and 10, eight-second frames at ISO 3200 for the Milky Way processed Sequator software. Then the Foreground image and the Milky Way shot were combined in Photoshop and then cleaned up with Nik DeNoise AI.

I’d photographed the Milky Way at Bryce before way back in 2014. That time, there had been a bit of moonlight…enough to light up the landscape but not so much as to obscure the Milky Way, so I’d concentrated on huge panos that showed vast sections of the canyon stretched under the full arch.

But this morning featured a new moon, so with no light to illuminate the landscape, I decided to try a smaller scale subject that I could light up myself. I headed for a spot where the trail runs through a small tunnel in a sandstone wall. I set up one of my new Lume Cubes behind the wall to light up the sides of the tunnel and another one on a light stand well off to my left to illuminate the wall. It took me about an hour to get the shots I needed and then a couple of hours of processing at home, I call the final result “The Portal.”

If you would like to read about how to photograph the Milky Way, see my detailed blog by clicking here.

As the skies brightened, I swapped to a telephoto lens and worked along the canyon rim to pick out some of the incredible details that make this park a true wonder.

Utah Photography Expedition 2021:  Day One / Bryce Canyon and Escalante Pictographs
Bryce Canyon
This shot is from the first time I ran across this little pine back in 2010.
Utah Photography Expedition 2021:  Day One / Bryce Canyon and Escalante Pictographs
A true survivor, still toughing it out 11 years later in 2021!

My ‘touchstone’ at Bryce is a small pine tenuously perched to the loose gravel of the rim near Sunset Point. I first noticed it when my wife and I visited back in 2010. Every time I return, I have a oddly paternal need to check to see if it is still hanging in there. Why this silly tree has struck an emotional chord in me is something I can’t quite understand or explain. But a wide grin split my face when I rounded the trail and saw it still alive and well.

You know, some of the places are ‘one and done’: I show up, take my photos and don’t feel much need to ever return. But not Bryce. It features so many potential shots that I think I could live here and still find something new and exciting to photograph every day for the rest of my life.

As the tourists in the nearby hotels were first starting to stir and mutter about coffee, I was already on the road toward Escalante. My next two stops weren’t landscape photography locations per se. They were amazing ancient examples of Native American art.

The Circle of Friends Pictograph

My mom grew up on a farm in Kentucky fascinated by the arrowheads that were churned up behind her dad’s tractor. She would convey that interest in Native Americans to her sons So I suppose it isn’t surprising that years later when I started photographing in the American west, I quickly became intrigued with the artwork that the original inhabitants of our continent left on the landscapes. Occasionally I would run across pictographs (designs painted with natural pigments on stone) and petroglyphs (designs actually cut into the stone) and over the years I started to actively seek them out as photography subjects in their own right.

During my research about Escalante, I ran across a photo of a truly unique pictograph known as the “Circle of Friends” (also called the “Circle of Life”).

Circle of Friends Pictograph Escalante Utah
Despite sunlight, bullet holes, and moronic current-day vandals, the vibrancy and creativity of this artwork still survive.

Most pictographs look like ‘primitive’ art…at least to my untrained eyes. Attractive, but somewhat simplistic and two-dimensional. But the Circle of Friends is different. Looking more like a piece of graphic art that could have been designed last week in Manhattan, it exudes a timeless and fluid grace that transcends its age. I really, REALLY wanted to see this in person.

The Circle of Friends isn’t a particularly popular or well-known spot. Which made finding it a bit of a challenge. The best directions I could find was a YouTube video that got me to within 1/10 of a mile. That sounds pretty good, right? Well, not really. After tramping around the sand and rock outside of Escalante for over an hour I was getting more than a bit frustrated. This spot is best photographed in the mid-morning before the sunlight washes out the detail and with the sun inching higher in the sky, I was concerned I was going to get there too late…IF I could find it at all.

Then I walked around a huge boulder and there it was staring me in the face! I whooped out loud and did a silly little dance that would have embarrassed my reserved WASPish ancestors.

Circle of Friends Pictograph Escalante Utah  Utah Photography Expedition 2021:  Day One / Bryce Canyon and Escalante Pictographs
This pano shows the Friends panel on the face of the boulder on the right edge. The dirt access road is visible in the valley below but you can’t see the panel from your car.

The panel still has vibrant color and I loved all the other ‘detail’ around it including thumbprints, silhouettes, and a warrior holding a spear. Even some of the ‘modern-day’ additions were interesting including an inscription by someone named Ray Moasman dated May 4, 1914.

Circle of Friends pictograph
Utah Photography Expedition 2021:  Day One / Bryce Canyon and Escalante Pictographs
I really wanted to come home with a shot that didn’t look like every other one I had seen on the internet. I think using this shrub to frame the design accomplished my goal

100 Hands Pictograph

With a happy spring in my step, I set out for my next stop which was a much better-known location less than 20 miles away. Known as the “100 Hundred Hands” panel, this is a series of handprints painted on a huge cliff face alcove a short hike from the trailhead on Hwy. 12. The hike involves some scrambling and a bunch of confusing social trails (I certainly took turn some wrong turns). Still, in less than an hour, I was standing on a Slickrock shelf with my neck craned up to take in this view:

100 Hands Pictograph Utah Photography Expedition 2021:  Day One / Bryce Canyon and Escalante Pictographs
I had to use a telephoto lens to have enough ‘reach’ to get this image. Although huge, it is far up the cliff face.

I’m told that there are actually 160 or so handprints painted on the wall but whatever the number you have to admire the perseverance and dexterity of the soul who climbed up and precariously painted all those handprints. And then you have to wonder…what was its purpose? A warning? A record of births? A celebration of life? A waypoint? The answer is lost to time.

Utah Photography Expedition 2021:  Day One / Bryce Canyon and Escalante Pictographs
Just sad…
Scared forever.

Along the way to the panel, there were two pictographs that some pathetic loser had actually tried to cut out of the sandstone with a saw. Can you imagine?

Another ten minutes down the trail, and you are rewarded with this killer petroglyph panel charmingly known as the “Wizard zapping the Reindeer.”

Utah Photography Expedition 2021:  Day One / Bryce Canyon and Escalante Pictographs
Your guess is as good as mine…

There are a number of other attractive petroglyphs along the trail, some of which are shown below.

Utah Photography Expedition 2021:  Day One / Bryce Canyon and Escalante Pictographs
Fremont Shamans
Utah Photography Expedition 2021:  Day One / Bryce Canyon and Escalante Pictographs
Antelope (mountain goat?) and snake

By now, it was already past noon, and the harsh light was making good photography difficult. So I headed back to Escalante which would serve as my base for the next 5 days.

Next week I’ll publish my next blog in this series. Day Two: Hole in the Rock Road, Devil’s Garden, and Zebra Slot Canyon.

Previous blog in this series: Utah Landscape Photography Expedition 2021: Overview

Related Images:

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Looks like you had an awesome trip! I’m looking forward to reading about the rest.

    1. It was wonderful to break my Covid-lockdown and play with my Nikon again Ed!

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