April 01, 2007

Southwest Utah, Part 2

Day 4 (Monday): A Reminder of Winter

No early rise today, as thin white clouds had rolled in. While dark clouds are great for photography, bringing out colors and blocking enough light for slower shutter speeds, these were rather useless. They left the land pretty still too bright, yet were white enough landscape shots were out. And with such bright white conditions, the colors in the plants and rocks were washed out as if it were a midday sun.

Resolved to exploring again, I hit the lesser traveled part of the park along the Kolob Resevoir Road. This road travels to the higher country in the west, cutting in and out of the park before passing through to the resevoir on the other side. There are occasionally rock formations and cliffs, but mostly it's desert highlands with vast sweeping views to the horizon. I was surprised by great stands of aspen along the road, very different from the cottonwood in the valley. This must be a spectacular place if the fall, but winter still helds its grip here and all the white trunks were still leafless.

Numerous trails that start in the area, as most of the western half of the park is backcountry. Hikers gearing up for their treks and the silent terrain gave me the urge to hit the trail myself, and I vowed to spend at least one day traveling by foot instead of by car. But not today, I had exploring to do.

I made a quick stop at Lava Point, the only major park area on the road. Not much this time of year, as the campground was closed and there was snow on the road, but a nice viewpoint overlooked a distant Zion Canyon. Once again, I had the whole place to myself. Despite my first experience a few days ago, solitude had not been difficult to find so far.

Kolob Resevoir, Spring (Snapshot) I drove on to the resevoir and was surprised to find it still mostly frozen. I had hoped to continue by backroad to Cedar City then on to Cedar Breaks National Monument, but snow blocked the road about two-thirds of the way. That meant a drive back to Hurricane, then up to Cedar City and across to the Monument. That would take time, but time I had. And I would pass Kolob Canyons, the last drivable area of the park.

I wasn't sure what to expect at Kolob Canyons. The name sounded promising, but being a road just off the Interstate, I wasn't sure about crowds. The visitor center was small and unassuming, and you can't see anything but desert scrub from there, but turning the first corner on the scenic drive my only thought was Wow! The entire road is dramatic views of sandstone mesas and valleys between them. There were at least two classic photos here I must have seen before. The photographic potential was amazing, but unfortunately it exactly the wrong lighting conditions. I snapped some shots for documentation just in case I never made it back, but this place was now the top of my list for sunset shots.

Summit Sign, with Bullet Hole (Snapshot) I continued north to Cedar City, then across on State Road 14 toward Cedar Breaks. The drive itself is quite pretty but seemed to go on forever, and winter was definitely still in charge. The road climbed and the snow deepened and I wondered if I was ever going to get there, then finally I crested the summit of the pass -- 9910 feet. I had no idea the elevation was so high, so I was not at all surprised when I got to Cedar Breaks and it was closed. Aside from the discovery of Kolob Canyons, the entire drive was for nothing.

Arch and Cottonwood There would be no sunset photos today as the clouds still held reign, so I drove back down to Zion Canyon via Hurricane to attempt some overcastshots. I ended up at the Temple of Sinawava since it was the darkest area, particuarly after the sun sank below the canyon rim. I tried photos of the contrasting green of the budding cottonwood trees and the red and purple cliff walls, but was unsure if they would amount to anything in this light. I also took some token photos of the Virgin River, but the muddy brown water was a far cry from what I was used to in the clear rivers of Washington.

Ridge and Cottonwood

Day 5 (Tuesday): Footfall

Another day of clouds, so another morning of sunrise photos lost, and today with a brisk wind. The clouds were thicker and darker as the meat of the storm passed overhead, so I did what I would do if I were back home in similar conditions -- rivers and color.

Virgin River My first stop was a scene on the Virgin River near Canyon Junction that I'd tried to shoot previously, but the thin clouds left too much sun. There was a perfectly placed cottonwood across the river, with a red cliff backdrop that really jumped out at me. But just as I'd set up my tripod and composed my shot, sunlight bathed down on the scene. There wasn't a cloud in the sky! What the hell?! I cursed the Utah weathermen for being as clueless as the Washington weathermen and gathered up my gear. Then just as I crested the embankment back to the road, the sun was gone again. Well hell! Back down to the river!

It seemed the sun really was gone this time, so I spent the rest of the day hiking the smaller trails in the canyon. First up was the Riverwalk Trail that started at the Temple of Sinawava. This is probably the most touristy hike in the whole park, so I wasn't surprised to be walking with dozens of other people despite the darkening weather. Other than the crowds, it was a nice leisurely hike along the river but the photo opportunities were limited since most of the trees were still budding and the sky was gray. The weather was too chancey to hike beyond the end of the canyon to The Narrows, even though I really wanted to see it.

Rocks and Pool There was one spot along the trail where water had collected in a pool below an arch in the cliff face, and the fallen rocks had stacked themselves into an interesting little structure. The pool was rimmed with green vegetation that really stood out in the overcast conditions. It was a very surreal scene, seemingly out of place on such a maintained trail. I almost expected a small hobbit or elf to come bounding out from between the rocks.

Arch, Rocks and Pool Cascade on Virgin River

After the short two miles of the river walk I hadn't quite fulfilled my hiking need, so I hiked the Emerald Pools as well. The weather was growing worse, with thicker rain and stiffer winds, but I pressed on nonetheless. The hike to the lower pool was rather easy, but other than the interesting walkway built into the cliff face, the pool itself was disappointing. The hike to the upper pool was much steeper, the stone steps seeming to never end. But the views across the valley and of the tower cliff face ahead made for enjoyable rest stops.

Upper Emerald Pool Finally I reached the upper pool and was again disappointed at the lack of color. The entire place -- rock and water -- was brown. I guess that's to be expected in the desert in March, but the name seemed rather deceptive. Some of the rocks along the water's edge were interesting and I'd just started shooting them when I got pelted by ice. The rain had turned to sleet and the wind was blowing it straight down the cliff face at me, enough for it to sting. That was my queue to leave.

The Watchman and Virgin River As the end of the day neared, the clouds cleared to the south and the evening light streamed down upon the landscape. I rushed down to Canyon Junction to shoot The Watchman, a scene I'd had my eye on since the first day in the park. I wasn't sure if it was allowed, but I set my tripod up on the narrow walkway on the bridge over the ricer and photographed it flowing past cottonwood trees, The Watchman towering over all. I found out later this is considered one of the best views in the park, and is apparently one of the most photographed. Later in the eek I saw literaly scores of people in this same spot, but for today I shared it with only a few others.

I made one final pass along the canyon as the sun peaked between breaks in the clouds, and managed to catch The Great White Throne. Not a bad ending to the day.

The Great White Throne

Day 6 (Wednesday): The Storm Drags On...

By now I'm getting frustrated. I get my third day of clouds as the storm stalls over the area, and another morning of photos lost. It could be worse, though -- the leading edge o the storm caused massive floods in Texas and a line of tornados in the Midwest extending for several states. But still...damn.

Grafton Heritage Site (Snapshot) I spent another day exploring, heading east again. First stop was the Grafton Heritage Site, just south of the town of Rockville. It's the remains of a turn of the century Mormon village that's been preserved as a historic site. It had a few old buildings and the obligatory cemetary, but didn't fulfill my conjured images of a ghost town. The buildings were too well preserved! Where's the delapidation?

Coral Pink Sand Dune (Snapshot) Next was a place I'd intended to visit a few days before when I'd ventured east but had passed it by -- Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park. With a name like that, how could I not visit? The dunes were more orange than pink to my colorblind eyes, but they were definitely interesting. This would be a good place to shoot given the right light, but that was a scarce commodity on the trip so far, so I doubted I'd be back this time. I took snapshots from the access points along the road, and even ventured onto the nearest dunes at a few points, but refrained from visiting the main area and thus paying the access fee.

Weathered Cliff Face and Plant Onward to Grand Staircase again, this time to Johnson Canyon Road that ran along its western edge. Not as many interesting landforms as Cottonwood Canyon, but it had its share of cliffs. There was also a real ghost town called Windmill that matched what I imagined a ghost town would look like, but it was fenced off on private property. The weather along this drive was psychotic, at one point snowing and sunny at the same time. But the sun breaks as the day waned made for good light when a subject presented itself.

Weathered Cliff Face and Plant

I spent the end of the day looping back to Zion and shooting what I could along the upper road, among the cliff faces and interesting rock patterns. It continued to snow off and on and I had to stop at one point because the snow was so thick in the air I couldn't see my subject, but then once again the sky cleared and I was left with a dusk sky to grab a last few shots.

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