When you're thinking of the ultimate photo road trip, where do you go? Wheres a good place to see something absolutely amazing everyday, with short drives in between? We pretty much figured out that the American Southwest is the best place for that. Throughout our nine day adventure, we cover well over 1400 miles, see six national parks in three states, go from an elevation of 2000ft to 9000ft and everything in between. We see hoodoos, rivers, canyons, arches, and ruins. We stand atop mountain passes, and on the edge of canyon cliffs. Best of all we have fun taking pictures of everything along the way. This year Phil Nicholas and I teamed up to conquer the adventure, and we had a group of eight photogs with whom we met up in Las Vegas, where our journey begins.
Day 1 - Las Vegas
Our adventure begins here. The Luxor hotel and casino has been our meeting place for a couple years now. It quite literally is a beacon of light for those lost in the desert. We met up with our group shortly after 7pm and after introducing everyone and reuniting with old acquaintances, Phil and I began to go through the basics of our trip in earnest. Nothing too crazy, just a top level overview of the next eight days with a basic plan as to what we would see. After giving everyone the spiel, we let them return to their rooms and grab their photo gear for a night out on the town. We drove a couple miles away from the strip to nearby Henderson, where there happens to be a couple hills that are high enough to have a view of the entire strip from afar. We walked up one of these hills and proceeded to get everyone more comfortable with their cameras and equipment. You know, dust off the cobwebs. From there we headed to the Bellagio, where we were able to grab photos of the fountain show three times. And after that we headed back to the Luxor where parked the van and got some shots of the Excalibur and then finally of the Luxor with the giant Sphinx in front. Phew. By that time it was after midnight and definitely time for our fun to stop, at least for today!
Day 2 - Las Vegas to Zion
A late rise today ensured that everyone was in tip top shape and rid of any jet lag. At 11am we picked our people up in front of the hotel and zipped over to McCarran airport (no, not to drop them off) to pick up one last student who was coming in today. By a stroke of good luck, when we pulled up she was ready and rearing to go. Sweet! Now that all our eggs were in the basket, we were off to Zion. Springdale, Utah is a pretty hip town just outside Zion National Park. We checked in to our hotel, and let the group have a couple hours to explore Springdale and grab a late lunch. A little later we met up with everyone and made the drive into Zion for our first sunset shoot. The Watchman in Zion is a 6500ft peak that looks over the Virgin river on the southern park border. Its proximity to the river and its towering presence make it the perfect subject for a sunset shoot. And boy were we surprised. The clouds just before sunset began to creep in and obscure the entire southern sky. Many in the group were in the process of giving up hope, but Phil and I have seen this time and time again. We didn't know it would turn out as good as it did though! Wow, what a way to end our second day.
Our first sunrise had us up early in the morning to make the first shuttle in the park today. Zion uses a shuttle system most of the year to keep the level of traffic and noise down in the park. Our stop this morning was the Court of the Patriarchs. Three peaks, Isaac, Abraham and Jacob, overlook a bend in the river with a little waterfall. All the nice clouds we had the previous night were nowhere to be found, so the sunrise light was a little harsh. We made our back to the shuttle and then back into town for some breakfast and then to pack up and head on to Bryce. We took the Mt. Carmel scenic highway which climbs though the upper east reaches of Zion National Park. We made a couple stops along the way to shoot, most notably some bighorn sheep! We finally made it to Bryce, checked in and gave everyone enough time just for lunch. The weather was looking really good so Phil and I decided it was best to just go out and shoot now into sunset. We made our first stop at sunset point, and made the short walk out to Thor's Hammer. The light was epic, beautiful clouds had the suns light coming through scattered holes, providing a dramatic contrasting landscape. For sunset, we headed down the road to inspiration point, where we could see a system of thunderstorms building to the north. The light again was epic, and sunset gave us all the amazing colors you could hope for in a landscape shot. Two for two with the great sunsets!
Day 4 - Bryce to Moab
For sunrise we went out to Bryce point, which is a pretty popular spot, so we had to get there a little early. Thank goodness the weather was on our side, as Bryce routinely is freezing in the mornings. But today I don't think got below 50. The sunrise today was phenomenal. There was a perfect little dusting of clouds right in the direction we were shooting (north), and the horizon to the east was clear, which made for an awesome mix of purples and pinks. And then as the sun rose higher, we had the group switch to longer lenses to zoom in isolate little scenes with the dramatic warm light. Once again, phenomenal. We headed back to the hotel for breakfast and checkout and then we started to make our way to Moab. The drive is pretty long so we like to break up the monotony with pretty scenery. Along the way we travel through the heart of the Dixie National Forest and to the top of the Paunsaugunt Plateau. There are a great mix of aspens among the many pine species atop the plateau. For the second year in a row, we were able to catch some of them in their prime. So we stopped along our route to allow for some impromptu fall foliage shooting. We had lunch in Torrey and then zipped through Capitol Reef and waterpocket fold, before flattening out in the Uinta basin and making the long boring desert drive to Moab. We checked in to the hotel and came right back to head out for sunset. Out at balanced rock, we struck again with decent weather as the clouds lit up the sky once again! The more interesting weather was happening behind us, but at least a little love was being shared our way. After that quick light show, we headed into town for another adventure entirely, food. After some pretty questionable service (or lack thereof) from one restaurant, we left and headed to another, where after a long day of driving and shooting, the margaritas came out. Luckily we wouldn't have to wake up too early.
Day 5 - Moab
The weather hadn't really cooperated with Phil and I's original plan to go shoot Mesa arch today. The clouds in the sky were obscuring the horizon so no light could get though, which worked out for us cause we out to go shoot House on Fire instead. After an hour and half drive, and a mile walk, we finally arrived. House on Fire. Not even a house, as the name might suggest, but a granary for food storage. Nonetheless its a pretty spectacular sight, especially when you have it all to yourself. The early morning light here is special because the sun bounces light of one canyon wall and back up to the ruin, effectively giving it some glow. After everyone got some memorable shots from all angles, we headed back out and back to Moab for a break before our afternoon hike. After lunch and a nap, it was time to head back into the park, to summit Delicate Arch. The 1.5 mile journey to our sunset spot is not the funnest hike I've ever done. With pretty much a steady uphill climb the whole way, and no cover the whole way, this hike would be the hardest on our trip. But everyone made it and when we all got to the top, we huddled together and shot away. Delicate arch goes through two phases during sunset, fully lit and warm, and then after the sun goes down the sky lights up while the arch is in shadow. Either way both shots are awesome. We scored again with an interesting sunset, as some color made its way across the sky. Not perfect but we'll take it (are we starting to sound spoiled?)
Today would be our only attempt at Mesa arch. This place is special in that we would need to get there very early. Its one of the most popular spots in all of the Southwest, due to the unique placement of the arch looking directly into sunrise. The arch, sadly isn't big enough for more than about 15 people. And being there first is critical for a group of our size. Luckily we did arrive first and got to the arch and began to setup for doing some star photography, why not right (we had 3 hours until sunrise). People began to filter in slowly, but we essentially had the whole place to ourselves all morning. I have to say Im very impressed with our group of people. There was a person who was trying to make life a little difficult for our people. But to their credit they tried many times to accommodate him the best they could to his disapproval with each attempt. It amazes me every time we go out to a popular place, where there's tens or hundreds of people all vying to get the same shot, and there's always some person who's upset, making childish complaints because they cant get their way. Oh well. At some point you just have to throw your hands up and move on. Which we did, being at Mesa arch first allowed us to pick our spots and get the best shots as the sun finally rose above the horizon. And we all had fun musing about our "friend" for the rest of the trip. Just before the afternoon, we packed up the van and headed south to Monument Valley. The View Hotel has the only view of the classic Monument Valley scene, and that's where we were staying, you have to stay there! We walked out of the hotel and down the parking lot maybe 100 yards and setup for sunset. The sky behind us again was crazy! But tonight it never quite made it back to the scene we were shooting. Does that still count towards our streak?
Day 7 - Monument Valley to Page
Our sunrise shoot was as easy to get to as the sunset shoot. Just a little further down the parking lot. After a short lesson in using a sun tracking app, we found exactly where the sun was going to rise and got into position. As the sun rose we were able to shoot off photos as the sun crept up the side Merrick Butte, shooting diffraction spikes the whole way. It looked awesome, even though the sky was clear. Phil showed a couple of the more die hard's some different spots using the dead trees, and the rest of the group went in for breakfast. After an amazing buffet, we packed up once again and headed off to Page, Arizona. We stopped briefly at Agathla peak to shoot some horses but after that it was all business to Page. After lunch and check in at the hotel, we headed out to the infamous Horseshoe Bend. As we made our way down, the sheer magnitude of the place just hits you. Over a mile in width, well over a mile long, and 1100ft deep. Its a terrifyingly beautiful place to visit. Once we got everyone setup for sunset, it was just a waiting game for another opportunity to use small apertures for a sunstar. After the sun went down however, the magic really started as the sky to our left really began to get some color. I told everyone to grab a couple shots in that direction, so I could show them how to do a sky replacement in Photoshop. While it was still bright enough we took our group shot and then headed back up the hill to Page.
Day 8 - Page to Grand Canyon
Another famous photographic landmark was on the docket this morning. Who's kidding they're all famous. Today we took the group down to Lower Antelope Canyon. A photographic bucket list place. This place is even more popular than Mesa Arch. Reservations have to be made weeks in advance to bring even small groups down here. But its totally worth it. Antelope Canyon is one of the coolest places on earth, not only for photography, but just to see it and soak it up. The way the walls move and corkscrew around, the way the light gets gradually warmer and darker purple the deeper you go, man its cool. So we had to split our group into two, and while one group went down, I did post processing with the group as the surface, and then we switched. After everyone came out, we headed back into Page for a super quickie lunch, and then we hauled it to the Grand Canyon, making a stop at Desert View. Instead of driving all the way to the hotel and then all they back out here again, we just decided to give everyone an hour and a half of free time to roam around the Desert View area, before we would call on them for sunset. We all explored the area, went into the old Watchtower, read plaques on the geography, and before we knew it, it was time for sunset. We setup our tripods on the canyon rim looking west. And boy were there some awesome clouds in the sky. Again! As our group started to shoot the light kept getting better and better, and at one point it was pink and purple everywhere. This one definitely counts. And I think we were 7 for 7 at this point for good sunsets. Unbelievable. We packed up and headed to the hotel where we checked in and then had our last and most memorable dinner together across the street at the Canyon Star. It definitely helps having a group of people who mesh well together from all walks of life.
Well, sunrise for this group wouldn't be normal unless it completely blew up, which it did. Phil and I were amazed as usual about the luck this particular group was having with the weather. We brought everyone out to Mather Point where we set up and waited for the magic. Mather point is my favorite spot to shoot sunrise in the Grand Canyon, as you have a near 180 degree unobstructed field of view. Which makes it great for panoramas too, but it really gives you options because the canyon is so big. With the sky really putting on a show, we soaked up the opportunity and shot like crazy. After our last group shot, we headed back to the van and said goodbye to Grand Canyon National Park. We had an amazing breakfast and dropped everyone off at the hotel to pack before making our final leg of the trip back where we started in Las Vegas. As we loaded up the van, it was kinda sad to see all the photo equipment put away, as sunrise was our last official shoot. We made our way south out of the forest, and then west towards the desert. We stopped once for food and gas, but other than that it was a pretty quiet trip. As we pulled into Las Vegas we began dropping folks off at their respective hotels, and then the airport. Eight quickly turned into zero and it was just Phil and I again. We drove to our hotel and spent the night and the next day talking all about the luckiest group we've ever had. To my memory, I cant think of another time where every night, and nearly every morning was blasted with colorful light. I think we just got into a good spot with the moving storm systems, and just rode the wind all the way across three states and back. What a time, thanks guys for all the fantastic memories and here's to the weather!
Until next time . . . Scott, Phil and the rest of the Aperture Academy Team