After a successful trip to Death Valley earlier this year, I received an invitation from my friend Peyton Hale for a trip to Zion National Park in late fall. I had been to the park once before, long before I had gotten into photography, but I remembered the beauty of the park well, and accepted the offer immediately to head out in mid-November. We were hoping for some late season fall color and weren’t too disappointed, especially at the lower elevations.
Zion is slammed with tourists and photographers during the summer months which even leads to the main road being closed to traffic in order to curb some of the crowds. November, however, is a much colder time of the year, the roads are reopened, and these people are nowhere to be seen. If you can stand the weather, I highly recommend heading to the park around this time.
I arrived into Springdale, Utah, the town at the entrance to Zion, mid-afternoon after a long bus ride from Las Vegas. After dealing with the crowds from three previous days in the city, getting out into the wilderness was a welcome treat.
Having met my crew of Peyton and fellow Colorado photographer Colby Brown, we were off to the end of the Zion Canyon scenic drive to explore the entrance to The Narrows which we would be hiking through a few days later. The entrance proved to be full of fall colors and ended up being one of my favorite areas of the park. The canyon provided good light and there were a few areas that I shot while still sizing up the park. The cold water of the Virgin River was a good foreshadow of what was to come.
After the light had dropped below the canyon, we woke up Scott Jarvie, who calls himself a Utah travel photographer, who was traveling across the western United States and had intended to meet up with us to see “what real landscape photography was all about.” He had been napping in his road-trip-equipped car that was complete with a laptop, snacks, air mattress, and several pillows. The fact that he retired to this mobile hotel eight feet from my tent every night made me extremely jealous.
Having rounded up most of our crew, we decided to shoot from the popular Watchman bridge that is the first site most people see when entering the park. Because of this, it is arguably the most photographed scene in the area, and one of the most beautiful in the right conditions. We were not presented with those conditions, however, and drove to our campsite to set up camp after a quick hour here.
Our campsite was a short drive from The Watchman, and actually ended up being just at the base of the mountain. I had initially packed several camera batteries and other gear, anticipating a full week without electricity and other modern amenities, but upon arriving at our campsite we discovered electricity, running water, and even spotty wireless Internet; everything a photographer needs!
I have been experimenting with shooting timelapse videos for the past several months, and on arriving at our campsite on a clear, cold night, I thought that shooting our campfire and general happenings around it would make a great subject for shooting another one. I was correct, although 80 shots into shooting Colby had the idea to head back around the bend to The Watchman bridge to shoot the clear night stars above the mountain. It seemed like a wonderful idea, so my timelapse was abandoned and off into the cold night we headed.
The Milky Way was in the wrong location, but the rest of the stars were abundant this evening. I’ve always found the struggles for night photography to be quite fun, and this night was no exception. After spending the first 30 minutes getting my focus dialed in correctly, I spent the next hour shooting the Watchman and surrounding mountains before the full moon peeked over the horizon, flooding the valley with an overabundance of light, blowing out the stars. We packed up and headed back to our campsite, crawling into our tents for a long, cold night of sleep.
Knowing that it would dip into the mid twenties during the night, I had purchased a sleeping bag liner for my 15 degree TNF Hightail sleeping bag. It turned out to be perfect, and getting out of my warm tent was tough at 5:30am the next morning.
Our destination for the day was The Subway, the popular hike that we accessed from the left form of North Creek. We met up with our final two photographers from the trip, Jim Davis and Mark Burnham at the trail-head where we tried posing for a group photo, but given the early morning wakeup call and the long hike in front of us, didn’t really work out.
The hike began with an initial 1,000 foot decent into the canyon which was easy going down, but I knew that the scrambling back up would not be fun after a long day shooting The Subway. After getting down, it became relatively easy minus a few times hopping over boulders and crossing the river in strange places. It was very scenic along the way, but most of us chose not to shoot knowing that the final destination put the journey to shame.
After close to five miles of trudging through the canyon, we came upon the beginnings of The Subway entrance that is marked by a huge set of several cascades. This is where the hike became interesting. Knowing that we would be hiking through the river for most of the trip, I, and a few others, chose to wear Keen water shoes that are made for hiking. These proved to be a good choice for getting wet, and I would probably choose them again when hiking The Subway. What they didn’t provide, however, was the grip and traction that I’m used to while hiking most Colorado mountains with. Needless to say, with my first step on the moss-covered waterfall I was 4 feet in the air, horizontal with the ground, preparing for gravity to hand me it’s fate. It didn’t disappoint.
After a brief recovery and gear check, I determined that everything was functioning correctly and we headed, soft-footed, further into the canyon. The Subway was not much further and the arrival of The Crack was my first chance to really take out my equipment and begin to spend some time shooting. The Crack is a narrow crack section of the Virgin River that runs out of the official Subway section. When the water is flowing quickly through the 2-inch wide section it makes for some beautiful shots.
This area too was very slick, and despite it being a mere 50 yards into the narrow area of the Subway, it took nearly 15 minutes to reach the spot from where I wanted to shoot. Having reached the Subway, I found that the temperature, which was already cold, dropped another 20 degrees when the wind was channeled through the narrow slot canyon. But, because I was in awe of one of Mother Nature’s beautiful pieces of work, the adrenaline took over and the cold feeling subsided.
The Subway hike can be done in one of two ways. Most people, as we did, choose to hike from the bottom of the canyon up to The Subway. During warmer times of the year it can be attempted from the top-down, through large pools of water. This sounds like an extremely fun way to experience The Subway, but being the middle of November, and the water around my ankles was 40-degrees, this hike will have to be saved for the middle of summer when the water is 70 degrees.
The slot canyon only allows for so many people to be standing in it while still allowing for photos to be taken with no one in the shot. Despite this, we managed to fit 6 photographers and gear in for well over 2 hours with no complaining or even any waiting for composition. This was one of the many qualities of shooting with this group of photographers.
After 2 hours of shooting, the excitement began to wear off and the feeling of standing in 40-degree water was starting to take it’s toll. Peyton was beginning to feel pretty cold as well, so we left the others to head back to warmer ground. In order to allow for plenty of time to shoot along the way, we decided it would be best to hike the five miles back to the car and leave the others behind in the canyon. We made great timing and were back to the car, tired and sore, in nearly 3 hours. We were hoping that Colby, who had the car keys and our transportation to a great sunset location, would be back to the car in enough time, we sat down to to wait for the others. Colby arrived soon enough, but we chose to miss out on shooting sunset to wait for the others. Scott arrived 30 minutes later and we headed off for a warm burger and brew as Jim and Mark had their own car at the trail-head.
Our third day in Zion was chosen to be a down day, as we had just completed a tough hike and had one looming in front of us the following day. We spent most of the morning shooting sunrise at the The Court of the Patriarchs and other close locations to our campsite and then shot a few fall colors up in the deep canyon.
The final shots on this day came from an area of the park that I hadn’t heard much about called Checkerboard Mesa. It is called this because, as you might imagine, the patterns in the clay form what looks like a checkerboard on the mountains. After scrambling up a short hill to an area that had some beautiful wave formations, I chose to shoot some detailed work in the sandstone while everyone else was off shooting in their own manner. Just as the sun was far enough below the horizon, we headed back down to the car by headlamp through cactus and other thorny bushes that make the desert wonderful during the day, but awful to a blind eye at night.
Most of our talk this day centered around whether or not we should rent drysuits for the next day that we would spend hiking up The Narrows, a slot canyon that is wall to wall with the Virgin River, sometimes rising to chest deep. Carrying valuable camera equipment through this river is stressful enough without our bodies chilled to the core, so the consensus was that we would swallow $90 each to rent a drysuit, river shoes, and an additional drybag to the one that I had brought with me.
The Narrows. Finally what we were most excited for. We woke up early, drove to our destination for the day, and shot around The Temple of Sinawava for about an hour until the sun was high enough to reach the top of the canyon walls before we suited up in our fresh drysuits and entered the cold water where we would spend the next eight hours.
We wore our clothes under the drysuits and the drysuits were so functional that they lived up to their name and allowed zero water in. Hiking up the river with 1,000 foot walls high above our head, we soon forgot about the cold water and began hiking into the canyon. Our first obstacle came only a half-mile in.
Before heading into the river we were told that the water level was unusually high for this time of year. The levels were at 120 cubic feet/second meaning that in parts, the river would be chest-high. Normally this time of year the river should never be any higher than waist high. The river wasn’t flowing too fast, as we were able to easily stay on our feet the whole time, but our first encounter with chest high water came very quickly. Carrying our bags over our head seemed to be the best way to approach the deep water, and after a short 100 feet, the water was back to being waist deep; a little excitement that made this hike the most fun of all the week’s activities.
Further into the canyon the walls began to become more narrow and taller as we hiked. I had never been in a real slot canyon before so this was all mesmerizing to me. I didn’t want to risk carrying my camera outside of my bag, but a few places allowed for me to set it down and shoot while battling the rushing currents.
We had two destinations in mind while venturing through the canyon. First was a short side canyon called Orderville canyon that was much more narrow than even the Narrows itself, and second was an area where the water gets extremely deep, even over our heads, called Wall Street. We decided that this would be our cutoff point.
Orderville canyon came first, but after waiting for everyone to meet at this point, we decided to continue on to Wall Street while the light was good and venture into Orderville on the way back. Wall Street, we discovered, is named as such due to the large vines and plant life that grows on the canyon walls in this area. It was interesting to see plant life after only seeing canyon walls and water for most of the hike prior.
Finally, after an extended rest period, we ventured back to Orderville Canyon, downstream this time. Walking with the current was a nice change after fighting it all morning. After about 30 minutes we reached the side canyon and headed up a darker, narrower section. Because it was much more narrow there was a lot of flash flood debris scattered throughout the canyon. Some of this made for a good photo opportunities and after looking at the shots back home, black and white seemed to me the best way to describe this section of The Narrows.
One of my favorite parts of shooting with Scott Jarvie on this trip was how much he enjoyed shooting photos of us, the photographers. While shooting landscape, most of us never return home with photos of us in action. Not that this is a bad thing, as I much prefer standing behind the camera rather than in front of it. But, Scott is the best at his craft, so I had to take advantage. We received some strange looks when Scott busted out his Nikon speedlites in the middle of the Narrows, but we were having fun, and didn’t care in the least. Now, I’m gifted with some wonderful marketing shots to help promote my work, so I’m forever grateful to one of the best portrait photographers in the country.
We headed out of The Narrows after a full day of shooting, all of us happy at the shots that we had taken. With this the final night in Zion, I already couldn’t wait to get back home to Colorado to see what I had captured. I suppose I should start carrying a laptop with me on trips like this so that I don’t have to endure the anticipation of the trip home to see what actually came out of the camera. It was worth the wait though, as I’m very happy with what I produced.
Overall, Zion was a wonderful success. I enjoyed shooting with and meeting my new friends, Mark, Jim, and Scott. There is something unique about this group of guys. We all enjoy each other company at the right time, but also enjoy heading off on our own to capture our own work in our own style. Throughout the whole week, we were never putting our tripods into old tripod holes to steal compositions. Each one of us came away with our own interpretation of Zion National Park, and it was a really special group to shoot with. It was a pleasure to talk photography with photographers that have been shooting for years, and I came away from the trip having learned a lot more than I went into it with. I hope that we all have an opportunity to shoot together again, and it looks like we are later this year with a trip planned for the end of August or early September. I’m already looking forward to childish jokes, talking photography, and especially the work that each one of us produces.