The weather forecast promised another night of clear skies, so I continued my upside-down sleep schedule and got up at 10 pm for another night (day?) of Milky Way Photography.
My plan was to photograph an absolutely intriguing location that I had admired for years. I had seen photographs on the internet of a lone cottonwood tree growing in a huge pothole that is sunk in a sheet of solid sandstone. It was a unique and striking visual image that I imagined would look even more awesome at night. It doesn’t have an official name, I just call it:
“The Lonely Tree” in the Pothole at Dancehall Rock
I had scouted this location in person a couple of days earlier after my hike out to Zebra Slot Canyon. That had been a good decision.
Although my internet search had found some ‘hints’ about its location, no one revealed its exact location. There were vague references to ‘behind Dancehall Rock’. So I invested some time on Google Earth and was able to spot a pothole on the Slickrock right behind the ‘stage’ of Dancehall Rock. I hoped that it was the one I was looking for.
I drove down to Dancehall rock and hiked up the massive slickrock spine behind it, and sure enough, there was a cottonwood in a pothole, but it wasn’t the photogenic one I was looking for.
Well, it turns out that there are a number of huge potholes in the area. Plus more than a few had trees growing in them. But I felt like Goldilocks: this one was too big, this one too ugly, this one too small. Finally, after an hour or so about a half-mile behind Dancehall, I crested a ridge and there it was!
I’m glad I had looked for it in the daylight first because I would have never found it at night. Plus, it would have been far more dangerous. The sides of the pothole sloped nearly straight down and if someone was hiking alone (like me) and they were to fall in, they would have no way of getting out without help. Plus, there is no cell service. Of course, I always hike with my ResQlink Personal Locator Beacon, but even so, I was glad to avoid becoming familiar with the bottom of the pothole.
Finally, at midnight, I pulled into the parking lot at Dancehall Rock after 90 minutes on the Hole in the Rock Road (an hour and a half to drive 35 miles…do the math;) I had previously made a map on my AllTrails app when I had scouted this spot earlier, so I was able to hike right to it in less than an hour even though it was absolutely pitch black. (Click here to see my hike on AllTrails).
It was 1 am when I got to the spot and started to set up. I had a number of pre-planned shots I wanted to get and would need every minute of the remaining four hours of darkness.
Light ‘er UP!
My first challenge was to illuminate the pothole. I had read an account by a photographer who had creatively tied a light to a rope and lowered it in the hole. So I had brought 100′ of parachute cord and first tried tying one of my Lume Cubes to it, but that didn’t work because was nearly impossible to adjust the direction of the light. Then I tried a better option, the Goal Zero Mini Lighthouse (see photo). It illuminates 360° …so it lit up the entire pothole wonderfully. I tied one end of the cord to the top of the light and the other to my camera bag and just tossed the little light in the hole. The internal rechargeable battery lasted the entire morning with no problem.
Then I set up a LumeCube about 500′ to the left on a 7′ tall light stand to illuminate the huge sandstone dome that loomed to the east behind the pothole. This is where being able to control the Lume Cube via my phone came in handy…it cut out a lot of footsteps as I took a series of test shots and adjusted the intensity of the light to a brightness that worked well.
Next, I wanted to take advantage of the wonderful sandstone ridges that run in wide, sensuous curves around the Slickrock and down into the pothole. These ridges are only an inch or so high, so I had to set up my third light only a few inches high so that the light barely skimmed the top of the ridges and maximized the visual impact of this neat feature.
Taking the shot
With all the lights set up (which took the better part of an hour), I could finally take my first photo. My Photopills app showed me how the Milky Way would ‘move’ from my left to my right (north to south) during the night. My plan was to start with my camera set up to the far south (right) of the pothole facing nearly due west to start and then gradually move my tripod toward the north (my left) as the night progressed. This way I kept the pothole between my camera and the Milky Way.
Here was my first shot.
I also wanted to capture a shot of the entire Milky Way arching over the tree. Since PhotoPills showed me that this composition would only be available for a short amount of time, I decided to shoot it next.
This image would have to cover half the sky…nearly 180° of the horizon. To make this work I needed a series of 16 overlapping shots that I would later merge in Photoshop as a panorama. First I took eight shots for the Milky Way at about 10 seconds each at ISO 6400. Then another 8 shots for the foreground at about 40 seconds each at 400 ISO. The real challenge here turned out to be the lighting. I had to move the light stands between shots so that they didn’t appear in any of the frames…it took some effort, but it worked out. Here is the final result:
As the Milky Way continued to ‘move’ to the right (south) it also shifted to a more vertical position. as shown below. For more detailed info that explains the technical ‘how-tos’ of Milky Way photography, see this blog.
As the approaching dawn washed out the Milky Way, the sky turned a deep royal blue. It was a killer contrast to the red sandstone.
At dawn, I packed up while reflecting on my five-hour visit. It truly is an amazing location. I’ve seen a lot of the world but there are few places that can match it for stark visual impact. Plus, other than a satellite or two, I hadn’t seen any evidence of mankind’s existence the whole night. That was oddly refreshing in its own right.
I headed back down the slickrock to my SUV already thinking of my next location. Peekaboo Slot Canyon.
Peekaboo Slot Canyon
Second only to Zebra, Peekaboo is often considered to be the most photogenic Slot Canyon in the area. The trailhead was only about an hour down the road from Dancehall Rock. So by 7 am, I was already at the parking lot and starting down the trail.
Lost in Escalante
The hike to Peekaboo is about 3 miles and the trail was wide and easy to follow. Or so I thought. Usually, I check my Alltrails app every few minutes when I’m hiking, but the trail was so clear I put the phone away and just enjoyed the walk. A good part of the hike was along a crest that looked out over the valley floor. The views were expansive and I soaked them in.
After an hour or so, I figured I must be getting close to Peekaboo so I pulled out the phone and checked AllTrails. …And I found that I was a full mile off the trail. Or actually, I was on another trail that had split off of “My” trail 40 minutes before.
I muttered some comments about my intelligence under my breath, turned around, and backtracked.
As it turns out, the trail to Peekaboo splits off the main trail at a 90° angle on a stretch that is solid smooth rock and there is no trail sign (at least not on the day I was there) that indicates you are supposed to veer off. Of course, if I had just been using my AllTrails app I wouldn’t have had a problem, but…
The rest of the hike was uneventful (thankfully). Some deep sand and a bit of scrambling but you can be sure I was checking AllTrails every minute or two!
At the entrance of Peekaboo, I faced my next challenge. To get into Peekaboo, you have to climb a 12′ rockface. It sounded intimidating on the internet but I had heard that sometimes there is a rope hanging that you can use. Well, my luck hadn’t changed and no rope was to be seen. Fortunately, there are handholds cut into the rock. So even though I’m not an experienced climber, I was able to make it up without too much drama. Plus, I had read a tip about leaving your backpack on the ground and hauling it up after you get to the top. This was good advice since climbing with my backpack on would have affected my balance. So my parachute cord came in handy a second time in less than 6 hours.
The Peekaboo Arches
The main attraction for photographers at Peekaboo is the arches just past the entrance. They are certainly eye-catching. Every hiker I saw inevitably crained their heads and gawked while pointing them out to their friends.
As you might think, there was a huge dynamic range between the bright sky and the shaded sandstone. My shots here were HDRs with 7 to 9 stops of exposure.
My visit to Peekaboo was during a dry spell, which meant I got to avoid the rain-filled pits that slow you down. This spot near the entrance, (which I call Caligula’s Bath), is usually underwater and hidden. But it was dry as a bone and pretty interesting looking.
Deeper into Peekaboo
In addition to the arches overhead, there are a number of ‘vertical’ arches as well. I particularly like this one that is shaped like a heart:
As you moved back into the slot, it got much narrower and more convoluted. There seemed to be a never-ending variety of sandstone shapes:
Before long, it was too narrow to even wear a backpack. With a tripod in one hand and my pack in the other, I continued to slither thru the maze.
There was so much to look at (and photograph). But just when I thought I had seen it all, I ran across this sitting on a slickrock shelf:
It’s true that Peekaboo doesn’t have that one, world-class photo op that nearby Zebra Slot does. But even so, it was worth the effort. Peekaboo is much longer and has a lot more variety, Plus its ‘Fun Factor’ is off the charts. A photographer could spend hours here. And I did.
On my way back, I briefly checked out Dry Fork Narrows which is close to the entrance of Peekaboo. Unfortunately, it was not very photogenic, being wider, less attractive, and downright boring in comparison
Also nearby was Spooky Slot canyon, which is even tighter than Peekaboo. But frankly, I had already hiked over 7 miles on very little sleep and it was getting hot. I called an audible and headed back to the trailhead.
On my drive back I planned out the next day, which would be my last in Escalante. I still had a couple of places left I really wanted to photograph. Plus there was one spot I wanted a second shot at. But more about that on my next blog.
PS: I mention a lot of products in my blogs. Unlike a lot of writers, I do not get kickbacks or compensation of any kind from these items. I don’t blindly trust someone’s comments who is getting paid to sell a product. I wouldn’t expect you would either.
Previous blogs about this trip:
- Day 1: Bryce Canyon and Escalante Pictographs
- Day 2: Devil’s Garden and Zebra Slot Canyon
- Day 3: Sunset & Moonrise Arch & 20 Mile Dinosaur Trackway