North America is an extremely diverse continent. Its geography alone is a wonder. With literally so many places to explore, where does even begin to plan a trip to take in the beauty? The Sierra Nevada? The Appalachia? The Rockies? The Northern Badlands? The Desert? There are so many places that could easily fill weeks of exploration. Thankfully, a huge part of interesting wilderness exists in a pocket in the southwestern United States. Three states share some of the most isolated and pristine desert wilderness in the world, and the area is small enough to make a journey covering its "greatest hits" of sorts. We call this adventure The Great American Southwest Sojourn; 9 days, 10 photographers, 7 National Parks, 3 states, 1500 miles, 2 instructors 1 ApCab and a couple special stops along the way. This story highlights our journey.
Day 1: Las Vegas
The last bastion of civilization before the push into the desert. Las Vegas is the ideal meeting spot to kick off this journey into the desert. Fellow instructor Phil Nicholas and I meet everyone at the Luxor Hotel and Casino, situated on the south end of the Las Vegas strip. Our 10 photographers, coming from all over the United States and internationally, have the beginning of this day to arrive in Las Vegas, check in to the Luxor, and have some time to nap and relax before our adventure begins. We meet everyone in the evening to go over the itinerary for the forthcoming days. Our traditional meet and greet helps us to get everyone acquainted, explain the pace of the workshop, as well as figure out what people want to work on over the next nine days. With everyone eager to start shooting, Phil and I take everyone out for some night shooting on the Las Vegas strip, starting with our very own hotel. We walk everyone down the strip and photograph the icons; Luxor, Excalibur, City Center, Bellagio, Caesars, and finally the Mirage. Las Vegas is okay during the day, but at night is when it comes alive. Walking down the strip, Phil and I stopped along the way to point out interesting compositions using the lights, isolating the colors, patterns and framing the buildings in interesting ways to take advantage of the lights and light shows. After we got to our last spot, some opted to take a cab back the Luxor, and some of us walked (we should have cabbed it too!). Ah well, that just makes for better sleep.
Since we spent the night out shooting, we decided it would just be plain mean to have an early wakeup call (we would have plenty), so we let everyone sleep in and started loading the van mid morning. ApCab2 was our ride for this trip, and without the racks in the back, the mass of luggage went in no problem! We all said goodbye to Las Vegas, and got comfortable for the 2 1/2 hour ride to Springdale, Utah, which would be our home for the next day. After arriving, we got some lunch, checked in at our hotel, and made our way into the park for sunset at The Watchman. In Zion, along the Virgin River the parks service has built a beautiful paved biking and walking trail, with bridges on many of the natural bends in the river. From these bridges, it's possible to get some amazing shots of both the river and The Watchman, a small peak on the southern end of the park. As the sunlight faded, the clouds looked like they might ruin the party and everyone was getting antsy about heading out. But at the last moment, we were given a glorious sunset with amazing colors, and we nearly had the whole place to ourselves! As we packed up the discussion turned to dinner, so we headed back into town to eat and rest for the night.
Day 3: Zion to Bryce
Our first sunrise! We woke up before dawn to get into the park and setup at the Court of Patriarchs. The Zion shuttle thankfully operates in the pre-dawn hours, so we hopped on right at 7am and took the shuttle up to our stop. The Court of Patriarchs is a little horseshoe shaped valley along the Virgin River with epic views of three peaks Issac, Abraham, and Jacob, three biblical patriarchs named by the Mormon settlers in the early 20th century. Phil and I guided our group toward a small waterfall in front of a footbridge, with the three peaks and the river providing a beautiful backdrop to our scene. As the sun arose, we had a couple clouds that lit up, but nothing as dramatic as seeing those Navajo sandstone cliffs being lit by the morning light. We stayed at the court a little longer and worked the scene as the sun crept higher, before heading back to Springdale for some breakfast and packing. After we packed the van, we took the Mount Carmel highway through the eastern side of Zion and stopped along the way to shoot the red rocks in Zion and Red Canyon, before finally arriving in the town of Tropic for lunch and check-in at our hotel for night. We had a few hours of daylight left so we headed into Bryce Canyon National Park and stopped at Natural Bridge, which is a huge arch of isolated red rock, surrounded by a forest of green conifers. There were a couple of aspens in the vicinity making the change to fall color that provided some nice shots as well. With sunset approaching, we headed to our sunset spot at Inspiration Point. Bryce Canyon holds one of the largest collections of hoodoos in the world. The entirety of the canyon is brimming with hoodoo erosion, thousands upon thousands of them make the scene of the canyon an amazing sight. The pink and purple glow of the sunset wasn’t too bad either!
Another early rise this morning saw us arriving at Bryce Point for sunrise. We were fairly lucky with weather on this trip so far, as the temperatures routinely fall to the 20's at this elevation (8300ft) for this time of year. But today, it was barely below 50. As sunrise came, the whole canyon began to glow orange and the shadows and highlights of the hoodoos became ever-interesting subject matter. We switched our lenses from wide angle to telephoto and zoomed in to take some detail shots of the canyon below. After an hour or so, we packed up and grabbed some breakfast in Tropic before heading east again in the direction of Moab, Utah. We took highway 12 eastward through the mountains of Bluebell Knoll. The aspens this time of year are usually starting to develop fall colors, and we couldn’t have timed it better. We made three major stops to work the massive range of aspens in the Dixie National Forest. The groves just kept getting better and better. Each time we exited our group of photographers ate up the opportunity and shot, working the compositions of the trees over and over. We took a pretty cool group shot, and moved on for some lunch in Torrey. With everyone full and ready to move on, we headed ever eastward, through Capitol Reef National Park, where there are ancient petroglyphs just off the highway, but everyone was so impressed and happy with the aspen groves, we just kept driving! As the miles wore on, the phrase of the trip was uttered; "Are we still in Utah?" "Yes! It's a big state!" Arriving in Moab, we quickly headed into Arches National Park for a sunset at Balanced Rock. We arrived not a moment too late, as we had just enough time to setup and get the last failing light on the rocks. Phew! Now time to take care of business in town. We checked in, grabbed some dinner, and headed off to bed for a BIG day.
After an early bedtime the day night before, everyone had ample time for some sleep, because at 3:30am Phil and I woke everybody up for a nice commute into Canyonlands for some night shooting and sunrise at Mesa Arch. Mesa Arch is one of the most photographed places in the southwest, and for good reason, it is absolutely spellbinding. Arriving on scene at about 4:30am we began some light painting and star photography, for which everyone was super eager! With nearly three hours before sunrise, we had the place all to ourselves for almost 2 hours, so our group got some amazing shots of the arch with the milky way, and even some star trails! As the scene began to get brighter, and more people arrived, our focus switched to the classic shot of Mesa with the sun-star peaking over the La Salle Mountains. At Mesa Arch, it pays to get there early, because at sunrise, it's utter chaos with all the people vying to get a shot of the arch in the morning light. After we nabbed all we could, we headed back to Moab for breakfast and a nice long break. Phil and I met the group in the afternoon for some post-processing techniques and review, before heading into town to get some on-the-run dinner (to eat at sunset) and lunch (for the next day's drive). For sunset, we headed once again into Arches National Park to Delicate Arch, another pretty famous arch (and one that’s proudly displayed on nearly every Utah license plate). The hike up to Delicate Arch, isn’t easy, especially with the 85 degree weather, so we had everyone bring plenty of water, and their dinner for a nice group picnic once we reached the top. The uninitiated hikers pushed through the heat, the elevation, and the long trail, and sat in amazement at the final sight of Delicate Arch. It truly is a wonder, once you’re there looking at it, I’m often speechless at the beauty of the arch, perfectly placed with the La Salle mountains framed nicely all around. Sunset wasn’t as spectacular, but it didn’t matter, our group was on a high after reaching the top. As we made our way down and out of the park, we stopped at Balanced Rock once again for some more night photography, which was just icing on the cake! "Are we still in Utah?"
Another big day ahead! No sunrise this morning, but instead a drive out to Cedar Mesa and an old Anasazi ruin. House on Fire is a special place, hidden in a dry riverbed, a mile hike from the nearest road, it sits in shadow. Everyday, in the morning only, the light hitting the opposite canyon wall throws a glowing golden light on the scene and it only lasts for a couple hours. We had to head out of Moab before sunrise, to make it down to the canyon and hike in, before the light would be lost. This ancient site, once a granary for the Pueblo (Anasazi) Indians, looks like a grouping of huts, placed in a cleft in the canyon wall. The erosion pattern of the rock above it makes it look like the roof is on fire, hence the name House on Fire. Everyone was extremely surprised and giddy to photograph it, and it's one of those places that doesn’t look all that interesting UNTIL you take a photo! After everyone got their fill, we headed out and took a lunch break in a replica Kiva, before driving to Muley Point, a viewpoint which overlooks the San Juan River Valley, and the Goosenecks State Park. "Are we still in Utah?" From there we drove on into the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, but not before stopping at Forrest Gump Point, where they shot a piece of the movie! Monument Valley is a very special place, not only for folks who love natural beauty, but also for the Navajo people, who are spiritually connected to the land there. The View Hotel is the "only" place one should stay while visiting the area, as every room (even the cabins) has a view of the eponymous Mittens. We setup for sunset, grabbed some shots right from the parking lot, and headed in for some dinner. Some of the group elected to stay out a little later and grab some night shots with the Mittens in silhouette, so Phil and I - always up for some shooting - very happily obliged.
Day 7: Monument Valley to Page
"Are we still in Utah?" Yup, kinda. As morning came, we had our group setup shop in nearly the same place as we did for sunset. Finding out what side of a particular Mitten the sun would rise isn’t an exact science, especially in the fall when the sun's trajectory is more diagonal and less straight up. So as the sun rose, we kept following it left, left, MORE LEFT, in order to get the sun to peer out just enough to get a sunstar on the side of the Merrick Butte. This is one of the most iconic shots of the American Southwest. As the sun rose higher, we made our way to some much-needed breakfast, before checking out, packing the van, and heading deeper into Arizona. "Are we still in Utah?" Nope, finally a new state! Along the way we stopped at Agathla Peak and grabbed some shots, before moving on to Page, Arizona, where had some lunch and checked in to our hotel. There was a time change when we entered Arizona, so sunset came an hour earlier and today we headed over to one the most impressive sights - to me anyway - the venerable Horseshoe Bend. I always like to describe Horseshoe Bend as "terrifyingly beautiful," which I find appropriate due to the 1,000 foot drop with no guardrail. The Colorado River makes a literal horseshoe shaped bend and the gorge present there is slightly more than 1000 feet deep. The vast openness of this place is hard to describe, as pictures cannot do it justice. Phil and I corralled our group around a little spot which I find slightly less terrifying, and everyone was able to shoot, or crawl, to the edge to get some impressive views of the canyon below. With our minds sufficiently blown, we headed back into Page for dinner and sleep.
Before we started this adventure, Phil and I had let everyone know, that there is special place near Page, which was an optional place to visit, if everyone was on board. Everyone immediately knew what we were talking about and pleaded with us to take them there, as it was a huge "bucket list" item for some of them. That place is Lower Antelope Canyon. It’s a wonder of the west. The extremely narrow slot canyon was carved out by seasonal rains over the course of eons. It’s relatively small in length, but huge in photographic opportunities. Due to the canyon being owned by a private entity on Navajo lands, the rules there are pretty strict (sometimes), and with the maximum group size to be let in capped at 10, Phil and I let our group proceed under the guidance of the Navajo trail guides on site. Because we were travelling on to the Grand Canyon today, we had to pack up the van right after breakfast, and get to the canyon as early as possible to be the first group in. Along the way, and as we waited patiently for the gates to open, Phil and I prepped the group for what they would see and the correct settings they would have to use once down in the slot canyon. As our group paid for entry and were awaiting their call, we once again walked them through things like settings and such, answering any lingering questions before they headed off, down into the depths. ELATION! After the two-hour time limit, one after another, our group came out and expressed their elation with the pictures they took down in the canyon. The Navajo guides were on point, despite the crowds inside, and everyone was extremely happy with their results. Awesome! Now off to our final destination, the Grand Canyon. We headed south, and then west, rising in elevation once again to the rim of the Grand Canyon and Kaibab Plateau, at around 7000 feet. We got a bite to eat and relaxed in the town Tusayan, before checking in to the hotel. Before we knew it, it was time to make our way back into the park for sunset at Desert View. This is probably my favorite spot in the Grand Canyon, at sunset, you can see westward down the canyon for miles, as layer upon layer of the canyon cliffs and buttes are in view overlapping each other. After sunset, we all had a farewell dinner together at the Canyon Star Steakhouse, where we were serenaded by a local musician during our feast. We toasted each other, drank wine, ate some pretty awesome food, and sang along to some old western songs before retreating to our rooms for one last night in the southwest.
Our last sunrise together! We woke up early and made our way out to Mather Point, one of the most iconic places in the Grand Canyon. The semi-cloudy morning light eked out a sliver of color, which was even more visible with the addition of a graduated filter, and our folks expressed that this was one of their favorite spots. Phil and I saw some amazing stuff on the backs of everyone’s cameras! From there we headed into the Grand Canyon Village and took the group to some lookouts along the rim trail by the lodges. We grabbed one last official group photo, and headed back to Tusayan for breakfast and to pack the van up one last time. It is a four-hour drive to Las Vegas from Tusayan, with nothing but scrub-brush and highway in between. So we passed our final hours with some sing-a-long time, as I played DJ to some classic rock hits! We stopped briefly in Kingman, for some lunch and gas, one of our international guests had not tried In-N-Out, so we made a special stop, filled up, and headed the rest of the way into Vegas.
We spend a lot time prepping for these workshops. We prepare the itinerary, finding all the spots to shoot, at the best times. We prepare for the hotels, finding the best places to stay. We prepare for each town, trying to find the best places to eat. But nothing prepares us for the hardest thing of all, saying goodbye. After having such a lovely group dynamic for nine days, it’s hard to let that go, for everyone. So as we pulled into McCarran International Airport, we had to prepare to say goodbye to everyone, and it aint easy! One by one, our group got smaller and smaller until in the end it’s just as it began, with Phil and I and ApCab, on the lonely road back to California. We had some great times, lots of laughs, some amazing food, saw some incredible locations, and took some awesome photos! We have proof! Phil and I want to express our extreme gratitude for everyone on this trip. Thank you for putting your trust in us, and thank you for just being awesome people! We can’t wait to see you guys again!
Until our next adventure together...Scott, Phil and the rest of the Aperture Academy Team!
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