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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.