Friday, November 23, 2007

Surgical Strike-Zion

Surgical Strikes. That’s what I call my short trips to places of interest, such as national parks. I usually try to coordinate them around some sort of business, like a conference, so that I use a few vacation days and work pays the airfare and some of the other expenses. This strategy has worked pretty well bringing me to places like the Channel Islands NP off the coast of California, Rocky Mountain NP, Joshua Tree NP, Anza Borrego State Park, among others.

This time I applied the technique (minus the corporate input) to seeing Zion National Park. I noticed that several of my favorite photographers (Jack Dykinga and David Muench) both were teaching workshops in Zion in early November. I figured they must know something that I didn’t and after a bit of investigation I discovered that early November is when the leaves change in that part of the country. The Aspens turn a brilliant yellow and the maples are a deep crimson. I had some personal time to use up and I found a reasonable airfare, so I booked myself a surgical strike to Zion covering November 8-10.

I left Boston around 5PM on Wednesday November 7 and landed in Las Vegas around 10PM PST after a brief stop in Salt Lake City. I grabbed the rental car and checked into the Motel6 in Vegas around midnight. This Motel6 is on Dean Martin Blvd which runs parallel to The Strip, but is separated from The Strip by the 15 running N/S. I could see the big black pyramid of Luxor and the towering Mandalay Bay but where I stood was a world away. Anyway, I tipped over and was asleep in no time.

I woke up around 7AM, checked out almost immediately, grabbed a MacBreakfast and was soon on the 15 heading towards Utah. It took a almost 3 hours to get to Springdale which is the little town just outside of Zion NP. I bought some supplies for hiking and breakfast and headed into the park. I got my campsite, set up the tent and went for my first hike.
The Front Porch

The Back Porch

The nice thing about November is that you can drive anywhere in the park. From March until the end of October, however, to go up into Zion Canyon you must ride on the shuttle. I’m sure the shuttles are convenient and are absolutely necessary during the peak visitation season, but I do like the freedom to move around at my own pace.

I decided to hike the Emerald Pools Trail which takes you up from the canyon floor along a really nice trail to lower, middle and upper Emerald Pools. The upper pool is set below towering red walls and if you want to hike further, you have to be able to rock climb. I took some photos at each of the 3 pools and then took the upper trail back down which made a loop and gave a really nice view down into the canyon.
Looking Back Down the Lower Emerald Pool Trail

The Upper Emerald Pool

View Down the Upper Pools Trail

Once back down, I drove up to the very end of the canyon to the Temple of Sinawava just to check it out. It was getting late afternoon and the light up in there was gone, so I turned around and headed to the eastern section of the park. This requires going through a tunnel that was built back in the 1930s and is low and narrow. The rangers stop traffic when a large vehicle needs to pass through, so I had to wait for a large trailer to make its way through.

Immediately on the eastern side of the tunnel is the carpark for the Canyon Overlook Trail. This is a pretty short (0.5 miles one way) trail to the overlook. I had wanted to do this hike after seeing a David Muench photo of sunrise from the Overlook. I wanted to see the trail in daylight in preparation for a pre-dawn hike with a headlamp so I could photograph sunrise a la Muench. It’s a well marked trail that ends at a railing and a look over the edge down into the canyon and beyond. Underneath, but out of view is the Zion Arch. I set up my tripod and waited for sunset chatting with many of the people who had hiked up to check out the view. I shot some nice images and then hiked down, getting back to the car before dark.
Sunset from the Canyon Overlook

Zion is quite the place and it does attract lots of photographers. I have not seen so many tripods and expensive rigs all in one place before. As I drove down from the Overlook there were still lots of people all set up on the bridge over the Virgin River getting the last shots of sunset and the Watchman. I’m glad I chose the Overlook and avoided the crowds. I continued into town for dinner at The Bit&Spur where I had a lovely pasta dish, washed down with an Evolution IPA. Next year I’ll try the Polygamy Porter.

After dining, I went back to my camp and after watching the stars for awhile I turned in. It was nice and cool and quiet when I fell asleep. I woke up in a few hours and it was like I had pitched my tent in a wind tunnel. IT WAS HOWLING!!!! The fly was flapping like crazy and I could have sworn it was raining. I slpet on and off for a few more hours, but as 4AM rolled around I had to get up. I needed to visit the facilities and I had already been lying down for 8 hours. I was amazed as I poked my head out of the tent to see that the sky was clear and full of stars.

I sat around at the picnic table as I decided on what to do. I really wanted to get out to the Canyon Overlook, but I kept talking myself out of hiking in the dark. All the “ohmagawds and whatifs” were rolling around in my head. Finally, I got going. I decided to go for it. Of course, I sat in the car for awhile offering the same arguments against, but as the night began to give way to light, I shouldered my pack, put on my headlamp and started walking.

Surprisingly, the hike was very relaxing. While I was relaxed and happy to be up and moving, my attention was very focused on the trail, lit by my headlamp, since there are several places where there is a long drop off to the dry wash below. I arrived at the overlook in plenty of time to set up my tripod and wait. It was quiet and clear. I was glad to have my warm jacket with me since the temperature was hovering in the upper 30s.
Sunrise from the Canyon Overlook

As the sun came up, I was all alone at the overlook. I kept expecting to hear voices coming up the trail to join me at first light. As first light passed, I thought for sure someone else would join me. Nope, I spent an incredible 2 hours watching the sun rise and illuminate the Towers of the Virgin with a gorgeous alpenglow. I returned to my car and still no one was there. Happily I returned to my camp for the morning ritual. (See the description in the Rocky Mountain post below)

Unfortunately, I goofed the day before and bought the wrong gas for my stove. No coffee. No oatmeal. What to do? I could go into town, buy another can of gas for my stove, come back, perk coffee, make oatmeal and waste the rest of the morning or I could go into town and visit the Mean Bean and get the necessary sustenance. That was the right choice! I walked in and ordered the largest coffee I could along with a breakfast sandwich. Mmmmmmmm and served up by a guy wearing a T-shirt that said “Never let a C student run your country!”.

I took my nectar and manna and split for the park. I ate as I drove up to the Temple of Sinawava and my date with the Riverside Walk, the paved trail that leads to the Virgin River Narrows. The late morning light backlighting the brilliant yellow Aspens along the rushing Virgin River suggested photo after photo. It was really hard to find something that wouldn’t be so obvious. I was set up to take an image and was framing my shot when a party of 3 walked past. One of the men said “There’s a photo up in there somewhere.” I agreed and they kept walking along.
Along the Riverside Walk

I walked up all the way to the end of the Riverside Walk taking more photos and reveling in the light. I took a few images at the trail’s end and was considering walking further up the canyon. I had to think hard about it. I had been talking to one of the park rangers the day before and he told me that the water was about 50°F. That’s cold and my feet are not really happy in the cold. As I was considering what to do, the same group passed me. Another one of the guys asked me if I was thinking about going up stream. I recognized him as one of my favorite landscape photographers, Jack Dykinga ( ). Of course, I said I was absolutely going up into the Narrows. He then asked if I’d carry his pack.
Looking Up Into The Virgin River Narrows

As we were hiking up into the Narrows I struck up a conversation with another member of the group, a woman named Jillian Robinson, a documentary film maker from Tuscon. In addition to Jack Dykinga, I was hiking with Jeff Foott, another professional photographer of some note. I was welcomed into the group and was able to spend most of the afternoon watching how these folks worked. Jack just tromped up into the Narrows, saw an image, set up his 4x5 camera, metered the scene and started taking pictures. Then just as quickly he moved to another spot and did the same thing. Then back to the first place for more. Then he made all of us get that same image.
My Version of the View Up the River

The View Down River in The Narrows

So, about the time that Jack ran out of film I needed to get out of the water. My feet were beginning to feel a bit like wooden clubs on the end of my legs and I needed something to eat. We walked back downstream and back to the cars. I said goodbye and went and ate some cheese and nuts and bread, feeling very satisfied and really lucky to have been there to hang with those folks.

After I finished eating and drying out, I went off in search of the evening spot to shoot sunset. I thought maybe at the same bridge with the hordes, but that I would venture down next to the river and get more of the scene looking up. The light did not cooperate very well and there were low clouds moving in. The spectacular show of the night before did not repeat, so after a few lackluster shots I went into town for another dinner and sleep.

My plan for Saturday was to break camp and head up to the Kolob Canyon area to either hike into the Subway or around to the Double Arch Alcove area before driving back to Vegas and an early morning flight on Sunday. Double Arch Alcove was suggested by both Jack and Jeff as one of THE places to go, especially with the foliage as beautiful as it was. I had my backcountry permit for the Subway and I had details for the Alcove and just needed to make up my mind.

Making up my mind was decided by my dinner. I had ordered a pork tostada and a couple of IPAs. I went to bed happy and full only to wake up a few hours later trying to decide whether to puke or shit! I ran to the bathroom and spent the next hour sitting there. I went back to my tent and fell asleep again only to wake up again in a little while with the same problem. I spent the next few hours voiding everything that was inside me. Once the sun was up, I started to break camp and it took awhile because I had to keep stopping and resting and fighting to keep from puking. After a couple of hours I felt a little better and figured a small coffee would be OK. Thus fortified I decided to forego and ideas of hiking that day.

So, I did something else I have done in the past when I explore a new area-I decided to drive and see the countryside. And what better way to do that than to drive up to Bryce Canyon NP. After all it would only be about a 1.5 hour drive and I would be able to check it out for the big spring trip next year. So, while still feeling like I was going to hurl, I pointed the car east, drove through the eastern section of Zion and on up to Bryce.

Once in Bryce, I drove all the way to the end of the road and slowly worked my way back to the entrance stopping at each overlook and taking some photos. This canyon is unique geologically, filled with structures called hoodoos. The hoodoos are artifacts from erosion of the very soft sandstones in the area. As they erode, short, deep canyons are formed. In Bryce, there are thousands of these canyons creating a maze of passages. Ebeneezer Bryce once remarked “It’s a helluva place to lose a cow.”
Sunrise Point-Bryce Canyon

The View From Bryce Point

Bryce is at over 8000’ so each time I tried to hike out a little ways at the overlooks, I would get really winded, my head would start to pound and I’d feel sick all over again. But I stopped at each overlook and made mental notes about good spots to take photos at either sunrise or sunset.

By the time I had driven all the way through the park it was getting late, so I bought a Coke and began the drive back to Vegas. I returned to the same Motel6, took a shower, re-packed and fell right asleep. My alarm woke me up in plenty of time to get to the airport for my 6:30AM flight home. After a quick change of planes in LA I was headed home, arriving in the early evening happy and tired. I can’t wait to go back next year for a whole week.