desert

The Coalmine Canyon Album

Coalmine Canyon #1

Yes, there was once a coal mine here in the late 1800s. But the seam was small, the coal was poor quality, and so the pioneers moved on from Coalmine Canyon and left the land to its owners, the Navajo and Hopi tribes of Native Americans. Good thing, because this gem of the Southwest is as lonely as it is gorgeous. The coal deposits at the top levels of the canyon are a key to its unique beauty, as they add black and blue colors to the usual red, orange and yellow tones of the desert, constructing a landscape like no other.

Coalmine Canyon #2
Coalmine Canyon #2

It is a photographer’s paradise on many levels. Most obviously, it is colorful, high relief, and in a climate zone of constantly changing light and seasons. Dawn, mid-day, sunset, bright sun and passing storms all change the character and mood of Coalmine Canyon. You will never see it and photograph it the same way twice.

Coalmine Canyon #4
Coalmine Canyon #4

It is also lonely. Not only will you see few other people exploring its rim, but the Native American stewards minimally manage your explorations. The Navajo tribe requests you get a permit to visit from any Navajo Tribal Parks office, but it is managed as wilderness and you are on your own to care for the land and respect the privacy of landowners.

Coalmine Canyon #5
Coalmine Canyon #5

One of the fascinating aspects of the canyon that appeals to me is the thin but intense red sandstone layers that occur among thick layers of white mudstone. In the canyon relief they give the strong impression of elevation lines on a topographic map.

Coalmine Canyon #7
Coalmine Canyon #7

Not only do I find these features appealing in horizontal vistas, but when seen in aerials taken directly above, they achieve an abstract quality. It can take a moment to realize what you are looking at.

Coalmine Canyon #8
Coalmine Canyon #8

As with most landscape photography, it is the light that makes or breaks the picture. The warm, angled light of dawn and dusk — broken clouds streaming patches of light across the immense acreage — even bright sun penetrating into impenetrable canyon — every condition presents new possibilities of color and composition.

Coalmine Canyon #6
Coalmine Canyon #6

To get to Coalmine Canyon, go to Tuba City, Arizona, which is on the Navajo Nation an hour north of Flagstaff,an hour south of Page, and an hour southwest of Kayenta. Stop at the Tribal office in town for a visit permit, then take Highway 264 southeast for 20 minutes, and you’re there. Find a few turnoffs on short dirt roads that will take you to overlooks. Most passenger cars can get to the closer vistas; a high-clearance vehicle takes you to some of the more remote spots.

Coalmine Canyon Arizona Map
Coalmine Canyon Arizona Map

The Subway, Zion National Park

Zion Subway

“Slot” canyons — of which the Subway is one — are the darlings of southwestern US geography. They are narrow defiles carved in layers of sandstone hundreds of feet deep — so narrow that it is difficult to walk through them in places, and so deep that sunlight may reach to the bottom only a few minutes a day when the sun is directly overhead. They are often in remote wilderness locations, and require heroic hiking, climbing and/or swimming skills to navigate. Slot canyons attain their unusually tall and narrow forms due to flash floods that carry tons of fine sand that can grind though the soft sandstone relatively quickly.

One of the finest of these is “The Subway” in Zion National Park, so named because the flume at the bottom has an oval shape reminiscent of a train tunnel. True to its kind, it is very hard to get to, a long distance from trailheads on very rough, sometimes dangerous trails. The photographer is awarded an extra penalty, not only having to pack in heavy gear, but to do part of it in the dark so that the light on scene is just right. Attacking The Subway in the fall is a great choice, not only because the midsummer heat is absent, but because colorful fall leaves adorn the stream and canyon bottom. (Pricing Schedule B)

Once There Were Farmers

Farm Wagon Capitol Reef

This long-abandoned farm wagon sits in a most unlikely place — along a creek bottom in the once-remote desert wilderness of what is now Capitol Reef National Park, Utah. This oasis is in a forbidding landscape that was one of the last districts of the American west to be explored and settled. Pioneer Farmers in this valley date from 1908, a good 40 years after the last of its wagon cousins carried pioneer all the way across the continent. It sounds sentimental, but standing in this spot, photographing this relic, does carry you back in time for a moment.

Many US national parks are based on pristine wilderness….but not all. Capitol Reef National Park in Utah is a good example of the latter. Pioneer farms dotted the habitable places long before anyone ever thought of setting the area aside as a national park. Here, visitors can be surprised a bit as the park incorporates an entire small community — the village of Fruita, where canyon-bottom orchards are still harvested for sweet fruit, and the summer hay is taken in to feed livestock. In virtually all national parks with pre-existing habitations, they have been incorporated into the park history, and operated consistent with the national parks’ historical mission. (Pricing Schedule E)

Gifford Barn, Capitol Reef

Many US national parks are based on pristine wilderness….but not all. Capitol Reef National Park in Utah is a good example of the latter. Pioneer farms dotted the habitable places long before anyone ever thought of setting aside the area as a national park. Here, visitors can be surprised a bit as the park incorporates an entire small community — the village of Fruita, where canyon-bottom orchards are still harvested for sweet fruit, and the summer hay is taken in to feed livestock. In virtually all national parks with pre-existing habitations, they have been incorporated into the park history, and operated consistent with the national parks’ historical mission.

The Gifford Barn and the nearby homestead at Capitol Reef fits like a charm. Its third occupant family since it’s construction in 1908 sold it to the park in 1969, but it continues to host visitors and livestock. It is easy to imagine what must have been an idyllic existence working the land in the shadow of isolated, spectacular cliffs and skies. Photographing the Gifford Barn has the same effect — kind of slow, relaxing, and homey. My intention is that the photograph conveys the same feeling. (Pricing Schedule E)

Burning Land, Burning Sky

Burning Land, Burning Sky

This photograph embodies a common problem with southwestern USA sunsets: The red colors are beyond belief. Literally.

The effect of brilliant scarlet sunset on rock that is striped psychedelically with red, orange and yellow creates scenes right out of the crimson heaven or perhaps the fiery furnace of hell. Either way, the person who has not seen such a scene with his or her own eyes will not believe it really exists. I, and many other photographers, have sometimes been accused of pushing the saturation or emphasizing the reds past nature’s capability into some gaudy realm of poor taste. I plead not guilty, and I find myself sometimes moderating the colors to stay within the realm of limited human perception. In this scene from the Valley of Fire state park near Las Vegas, Nevada, I have toned down the red rock stripes, and emphasized the blue and indigo sky tones with credibility in mind.

The ultimate solution to this problem, and what I urge upon you if you haven’t done this — is to get out in the redrock desert and see it for yourself. Camp among the rocks, eat dinner early, and wander about at sunset to see fire on rock for yourself. (Pricing Schedule B)

Sunset at the Fire Wave

Fire Wave Sunset

Striped rocks are so cool! Everywhere they stick their heads up, people come to see and photograph them. What’s more, we like to name them after waves, apparently seeing something in their undulations that resembles waves in the water. Perhaps the most famous such formation is The Wave, a couple hundred miles from this location in Arizona. It’s so spectacular that it overshadows this some what smaller spectacle at the Valley of Fire State Park near Las Vegas, Nevada, named the Fire Wave.

Both of these natural wonders are managed by governments without photographers in mind. Both require hikes — although the Fire Wave hike is quite a bit shorter than The Wave’s hike – and both require that you leave at sunset and not stay overnight.

These regulations overlook the fact that desert rock formations are always at their visual best at sunrise and sunset. Visiting them in the middle of the day is, for the photographer, underwhelming. To see them at their stunning best requires you to break the rules — so I do. This particular day at the Fire Wave, a spectacular sunset was brewing, and I had no intention of being out of the park by sunset. You have to suffer for your art, they say, and so this day I suffered the irritation of park rangers as I didn’t get back to my car and out of the park until after dark. They could have gotten strict with my lawbreaking, but they didn’t and I like to think they understand the artist’s need to push the envelope for the sake of beauty.

Point Imperial, Grand Canyon

Imperial Point, Grand Canyon

Most people would tell you there is only one Grand Canyon. In reality, there are two; the South Rim, which everybody visits, and the North Rim, which sees much less attention. And while the Grand Canyon landscapes offered by both are classics, everything else about the two sites is dissimilar. The north is a completely different environment – high, colder, wetter, and more forested. The photography is different, too. In the north, morning light brings out the amazing textures structure, while evening light works best in the south. “Point Imperial” is the striking feature highlighted here by the sunrise.

Vermillion Cliffs

Vermilliion Cliffs

The sublime Vermillion Cliffs are at a nexus of the classic Old West, witness to Spanish explorers, Navajo and Hopi tribes, and immigrant settlers, not to mention a geologic wonderland carved by the Colorado River. They also have the misfortune of being surrounded by some of the most famous national parks in the western US — Grand Canyon, Canyonlands, Arches, Zion, Bryce Canyon. This is explains why their great beauty is unknown to many – everyone is driving past as fast as they can to other places. I have been coming back for years, however, entranced by their unpredictable light and changing moods.

This time I found them at exactly the right moment, backlit by the warm light of late afternoon, and crowned with beautiful cumulus clouds, and I had enough composure and adequate skill to not make a hash of it. A few more flips of the coin, and now you are part of this amazing sequence of chance events. What luck! (Price Schedule B)

Needles at Dawn, Canyonlands

Needles Sunrise 1, Canyonlands

It should come as no surprise that in photography, as any other profession, you have to go the extra mile to get the better shot. Or in this case, about sixty extra miles.

The Needles District of Canyonlands National Park is right there on the map, as are plenty of descriptions of the dramatic rock formations to be seen, and the facilities to make you comfortable as you visit. BUT…it’s a sixty-mile drive, one way, from a main highway that’s already a lonely track in the desert. That’s apparently too much time for most people. And at the end of the road, there’s more: backpacking into the wilderness, getting up before dawn, dodging the heat and the scorpions.

No wonder few recognize this gorgeous scene. No wonder beautiful photography of the Needles is a rarity. But if you are in the rarity business, as I am, you eagerly do these things, with a smile, and with faith that the result will startle someone, or perhaps everyone. (Price Schedule B)

The Grand Staircase

Grand Staircase

Sometimes you have to get away from the trees to see the forest. The Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument offers a classic example. It is the largest national monument in the lower 48 US states and features endless terraced mesas, redrock formations, shady slot canyons, lonely streams, and an immense stratigraphic and paleontologic record book. It is impossible to comprehend when you are inside it.

I was at nearby Bryce Canyon National park on a winter afternoon, and the combination of elevation, snow, and the warm, low-angle light of sunset was a sudden, almost accidental revelation. The literal Grand Staircase was in right in front of me, its terraces compressed between a bluff in Bryce Canyon and the shoulder of Navajo Mountain, 160 kilometers away — and the lines, shapes and colors made it beautiful in a way few had noticed before. This rendition is one of my favorites, not only for its beauty, but for the way it simplified its complexity for me. I love it when a shot comes together. (Price Schedule A)

Bryce Winter Sunset

Bryce Winter Sunset 1

Winter in the wildlands is transformative — but that’s hard to fathom unless you turn off the TV and get out in it. That doesn’t mean you have to be uncomfortable. Well, maybe just a little. Take Bryce Canyon National Park. It’s quite accessible all but the deepest snows — just dress warm and wear winter boots, and it is easy to see everything that summer affords, but in a whole different light.

Even so, when the afternoon sun hits the horizon it gets very cold very fast, and most people will dash for their supper and their shelter. I have been the fortunate recipient of many good photographs, however, just by lingering a little longer to see what happens to the colors and the shapes. This is one of those scenes, when the last rays break through the only gap in the ridge to throw a dying beam of red light on red rock, and set it on fire. Must have been fire, for sure, because I could feel the heat. (Price Schedule B)

Misty Monument Valley

This isn’t my photograph. It was taken by my mother just a few months before she passed away in 2015, at age 88. I’ve included it here for two reasons: First, it is to pay tribute to her vitality and determination, that she was up at dawn in the Arizona desert having another adventure at advanced age and in ill health. I would never presume to achieve that, or even come close. Second, it is a glorious and unusual photograph in its own right. “The Mittens” formation at Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park is perhaps the most photographed and recognizable scene in Arizona, even beyond the Grand Canyon. I have seen it many times, but never in such dramatic light, with sinister clouds twisting around the silhouetted pillars. It is a scene that happens once in a lifetime — and it was a great lifetime. (Price Schedule D)

Unfolding

It is not hard to find photos of Antelope Canyon, the famous “slot canyon” on Navajo tribal land near Page, Arizona. Mine are a bit different, I think; I use High Dynamic Range techniques to bring out the texture and and detail of every shadow.

Antelope Canyon Produces amazing images, but the setting itself is small and simple. It is a narrow crevice with intricate turns cut down through a sandstone bluff by water and wind, perhaps 100 meters long and 20 meters tall. Direct sunlight reaches down to the bottom for less than an hour a day. This forces the photographer to plan his/her moves very carefully, as one will be scurrying around like a madman trying to take lots of photos before the sun goes away. (Price Schedule C)

Wadi Luab, Oman

Everywhere in the remote deserts of the Middle East are stunning natural landscapes that would be set aside as national parks or protected areas in more populated countries. The Musandam Penninsula of Oman is one such place. This stark landscape is shot through with deep gorges and high peaks that appear as nothing more than scorched and twisted rock in the mid-day sun. Mornings and evenings, however, the same rock glows with an inviting warmth. This October morning photograph shows a hint of that hidden beauty.

In this part of the world, anything from a shallow gully to a deep gorge gets the Arabic name “wadi” (وادي), but that hardly does justice to this deep cleft. As rugged as it is, it nevertheless hosts a popular trail given the name “Jungle Book” that continues far up to the high mountains. (Price Schedule G)