After my first day of photographing Bryce Canyon and Indian pictographs/pictographs along Hwy 12, I was ready to get to the real focus of my trip: The Grand Staircase -Escalante National Monument. This area in south-central Utah is huge (nearly the size of the state of Delaware) and so remote it was actually the last region of the lower 48 states to be mapped. But more important to me is that it is one of the most photogenic places on the planet.
My base for the next 5 days would be the small, isolated town of Escalante, Utah population 792. Although lacking the upscale ‘vibe’ of, say Moab, it does have gas, food, lodging PLUS it has one killer attribute: It is located less than 5 miles from the entrance of the Hole in the Rock Road, which provides sole access to much of the eastern part of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
Its isolation has the wonderful benefit of hosting some of the darkest skies on the continent…which makes it ideal for Milky Way photography. Plus the weather forecast for the week was nearly cloud-free, so I planned to completely shift my shooting schedule and starting my day after midnight, shoot the Milky Way until dawn, then shoot a morning location. After the sun got too high for good photography, I’d scout the spot that I would shoot later that night. And then, after that, maybe I could head back to the hotel for a shower, shave and sleep.
Nearly all of the locations I planned to shoot could only be reached via the Hole in the Rock Road (HIRR). Over the upcoming week, I’d end up spending a ungodly amount of my time on this rough 60-mile long washboarded dirt and rock road. No cell service, food water, or gas and a total of 3 pit toilets along the way….pure luxury!
The condition of the road can vary greatly depending on when it was last graded and if it has rained recently (check this site for the latest road report). Usually, it can be driven by a regular vehicle with a high wheel-base (except for the last 7 miles which require 4 wheel drive). With that said, this isn’t an enjoyable ride. The washboarding can be intense and you probably won’t be able to average more than 20 MPH unless you don’t care about shaking your vehicle apart or have a monster truck built for this type of abuse. Towing bills on HIRR can be exorbitant. Plus I was driving a rental that I wasn’t supposed to drive off-asphalt (a detail hidden in the small print of nearly all rental car company contracts), I elected to moderate my speed and do my best to avoid a breakdown. The only good thing about the road is that it scares off most tourists and you certainly won’t see crowds as you do at Zion or the Grand Canyon.
I planned to shoot the Milky Way at Devil’s Garden on my first morning. It was only 12 miles down the Hole in the Rock Road and since I had visited once before, I figured I wouldn’t need to get there early to scout around. So, I slept in…until the lazy time of 2 am. I got on the road a hour later and pulled into the parking area around 4.
I set up one camera to make star trail images, then hiked over to a wonderful formation of hoodoos called the “Four Wisemen.” By the time I figured out where to position my tripod, off-camera lights, and adjust their illumination to where I was happy with it, it was already 5 am…and with the sunrise at 6:30, the brightening skies were already making it impossible to capture a quality Milky Way image. My best effort from the morning is displayed to the right:
A bit frustrated with myself for not arriving earlier, I tried to redeem myself by thoroughly scouting the area using my phone’s PhotoPills app. I hoped that I’d get a chance to return for a Milky Way rematch session before the end of my trip.
I stuck around for the dawn, but the lack of clouds that had been ideal for Milky Way photography meant that the sunrise was downright bland. But my mood started to improve as I started thinking of my next stop: Zebra!
Zebra Slot Canyon
My passion for Utah landscapes was first kindled when I read How to Photograph the Southwest by Laurent Martres over 15 years ago. Of all the wonders Laurent revealed to me, Zebra Canyon was one of the most intriguing that I had not yet been able to visit.
The trailhead for Zebra was only 4 miles from Devil’s Garden, and when I pulled in at 7 am I was only the second car there. That made me a happy boy because Zebra is very tight and it is nearly impossible to take decent photographs unless you are there alone.
The hike is about 2 1/2 miles each way and it isn’t well marked, but I had my AllTrails Pro (GPS) app (which I have learned to trust and rely upon over the years). Not only did it keep me on the trail but reviews on the app written by folks who had done the hike the day before let me know that slot’s entrance was dry (it usually has standing water, often waist-high). That meant I could leave my water shoes, dry bag, and towel in the car (at my age, I like hiking with as little weight as I can!)
About halfway thru the hike, I caught up with the folks who had beat me to the parking lot that morning. They were a friendly bunch of college guys were who told me they had been on the trail for an hour but had gotten lost a couple of times. I think it bothered them that a guy three times their age had caught up to them because, after a few cheerful words, they took off in a dust cloud of youthful energy.
The final approach to Zebra was along a sandy riverbed (Harris Wash). I started noticing perfectly spherical rocks that looked and felt like mini-canon balls. These, of course, were the famous Moqui Marbles (aka Martian Blueberries or Buckey Balls) that I had read about.
Strawberry-sized, and nearly black, they are composed of a solid iron oxide shell surrounding a Navajo Sandstone center. I’d never seen one before but they are a common feature here and they are a distinguishing feature of Zebra photographs showing them embedded in the canyon walls.
I dropped my pack at the entrance and continued carrying only my camera and tripod. I did that because about 200 feet in, the slot narrows claustrophobically and you won’t fit with a backpack. In fact, at one point, the bottom of the canyon is less than 4″ wide so it is too narrow to walk thru…even sideways. The only way forward was to use the “Chimney Technique” (you push your back flat to one wall and press your feet on the opposing wall, then ‘waddle’ your way along)…it isn’t elegant, but it will get you where you need to go. Fortunately, this section is only about 15′ long and then it opens up the rest of the way. Unfortunately, the rough sandstone walls shredded the seat of my pants which certainly did allow a refreshing amount of ventilation to my nether regions (although it was cause for some embarrassment when passing other hikers later in the day)!
My ‘wardrobe malfunction’ was forgotten the moment I turned the corner and saw the last 100′ of the slot. It was empty!
I had expected the kids I had seen earlier to beat me there. Plus I knew how rare it is to be in Zebra alone, so I quickly took advantage of my good fortune and set up. Lighting in Zebra is best in mid-morning when there is enough light to minimize shadows. The low sun angle is perfect for providing warm, reflected light on the sandstone walls. In a couple of hours that the same sun would shine straight down, washing out the detail and color.
- To be totally honest, I’ve always thought all shots of Zebra pretty much look the same; so it was a bit of a revelation that it looks dramatically different depending on which direction you look.
- As you enter the last 100′ feet and look toward the end of the slot (‘upstream’, the walls feature sharp edges and jagged lines.
- But if you walk 30 paces to the end of the canyon and turn around toward the entrance, everything looks smooth and rounded. (This is the classic view that you usually see in photos of Zebra).
Since the canyon walls are close, you have to very careful with your depth of field. It can be challenging to get everything in focus from the sand on the floor a few inches away from the camera to the back of the canyon that stretches back another hundred feet (30 meters).
The extreme difference between the deep shadows and illuminated sandstone walls near the top of the canyon (dynamic range) is also a challenge. HDR with five frames, each exposed a full stop apart addressed that problem for me.
One of Zebra’s most distinctive and attractive features are the walls that undulate with sharply defined alternating bands of colorful pink, maroon and white sandstone. I tried to capture every variation available in my images.
As I was working, it profoundly dawned on me that, unlike some icons that photographers rave about, Zebra fully lived up to the hype.
I was a busy little photographer and took hundreds of images while shooting from every possible height, angle, and perspective I could imagine. When I finally heard voices echoing down the slot, I checked my watch and was startled to see that I had been there for a full hour. Time flies…
A couple of moments later, the college kids I had seen earlier popped around the bend and I surrendered my little bit of heaven to the next batch of fortunate souls. It turned out they had got lost again so I shared with them the magic of my AllTrails app. That struck me as kinda funny: You know, an old dude schooling youngsters on new technology!
On the hike back I took time to check out some of the impressive landscapes that I had pretty much ignored in my morning rush to get to Zebra. The temperature started climbing toward the forecasted high of 90° F (32°C) and as I neared the parking lot I started to see dozens of folks just starting their shadeless hike. I took a long, cool drink and silently patted myself on the back for being an early bird.
I still needed to check out a couple of potential Milky Way photo locations. I’ve learned the hard way that it’s a good idea to scout these locations during daylight.
Both of these spots were all the way down near the end of Hole in the Rock Road so it ate up the hours and by the time I made it back to my room, it had been a full day.
Five hours of sleep and I was back at it again…but that story will have to wait until my next blog.
Previous Posts in the series about this trip: