Jennifer and I went on a ten-day (3–13 June 2009) hiking & photography trip to Page, Escalante, and Zion, the photos from which are here. I did some research on Naturescapes.net beforehand, and, in hindsight, the best piece of advice was to purchase the three-volume set Photographing the Southwest (vol1, vol2, vol3) by Laurent Martres. It's an excellent reference for choosing places to visit and how/when to photograph them but shouldn't be considered a substitute for a hiking guide and topos. I think that non-photographers looking for beautiful places to visit would also find them excellent references as well.
I photographed with a Nikon D700 the entire time and brought a Sigma 12–24, Tamron 28–75, Sigma 180 macro, and Nikkor 70–300 VR. Other gear included a Velbon 640 CF tripod, Acratech GV2 ballhead, RRS L-bracket, B+W 10-stop ND, and Marumi circular polarizer polarizer (both 67 mm). The macro lens never left my suitcase. More on gear and how it performed later.
As far as background goes, we're both experienced cave explorers and in good physical condition. I've often driven 2WD street vehicles to places that leave 4WD aficionados agape. "How the &*^% did you get that here?" is something I've heard numerous times.
For food, we brought along a bunch of dehydrated meals from Alpine Aire and Mary Janes Farm and stopped at Trader Joe's near McCarran Airport for trail mix, fruit, and other snacks. Hence, cooking involved boiling some water and dumping it in packet, which saved a lot of time and money.
Antelope Canyon (Page):
We booked a half-day photo tour with Carol Bigthumb to see Lower Antelope, Upper Antelope, and Rattlesnake canyons. We met her at the parking lot at 0800, where she introduced us to Vernon, our guide for the day. We started in Lower Antelope and had the canyon to ourselves for the first two hours; we only saw other people when we doubled back to head out. It's by far the prettiest of the three, with beautiful colors and textures throughout. Vernon had lead numerous trips through the canyon and shot there extensively himself, which really paid of in getting some great shots. He helped me set up numerous compositions that I would have walked right by. Timing is also important. He brought us back to one spot at 1000 when a sunbeam shot through a hole in a wall. No way you'd know to do that shooting on your own. The canyon has numerous twists and turns, and moving a couple of inches can dramatically change the lighting and composition. His experience really paid off.
We headed to Upper Antelope around 1100, and it was absolutely mobbed with tourists. Lower Antelope is like walking through a narrow hallway with occasional climb downs, while Upper Antelope is flat with rooms that can easily hold twenty people. The guides do a good job moving people through, keeping people out of the photos, and throwing sand in the air with shovels to get the classic sunbeam shots. Many of them are also avid photographers; one was telling me about shooting the canyon with his 4x5 and new 75 mm lens.
Rattlesnake is a small side canyon that Carol has exclusive rights to visit. It's not as deep as the other two but offers plenty of pretty colors and textures. It was great to get out of Upper Antelope and have this canyon to ourselves.
I used my 28–75 for the majority of my shots and the wide end of my 70–300 for a few. You need a tripod to shoot at your base ISO and stop down your lens for good DOF. This isn't a problem, since there's plenty of room in the canyons to set it up. Walking around can kick up a considerable amount of dust, so be careful changing lenses.
We were the only people with Vernon in Lower Antelope, and another couple joined us for Upper Antelope and Rattlesnake.
Horeshoe Bend (Page):
This is a fifteen-minute hike from the parking spot over a sandy trail. I'd recommend shooting it near the middle of the day so that the river is in sunlight. In the evening, you'll be shooting directly into the sun. At twilight, you'll have trouble keeping detail in the river without blowing out the clouds. The D700's incredible dynamic range really helped here. Don't worry if arrive and find the parking lot packed: perhaps 2/3 of the people are walking to or from the bend.
Cathedral Wash (Page):
We did this hike after Antelope Canyon, and it was our favorite of the trip. You park right at the trailhead and follow a wash down to the Colorado River. There are all kinds of incredible formations along the way, and you can cool your feet in the river at the end. The grade is quite gentle, but you do need to negotiate climb downs around the numerous pour offs. You'll have to turn around fairly quickly if you're uncomfortable with heights or unprotected climbs. The wash was dry other than some occasional pools in the lower sections when we visited.
Drive to Escalante:
The rangers at the visitors center advised staying off Cottonwood Road with our PT Cruiser due to ruts along the southern end of the road. In retrospect, we should have gone for it, as I easily took the car across sections of road that the rangers said were in far worse conditions. In any case, we stayed on paved roads and stopped off at Rimrocks Hoodoos, Red Canyon, and Grosvenor Arch during the drive. The hoodoos would be a fun place to shoot at dawn or dusk, as would be Grosvenor Arch. There's a large mass of rock behind the arch, and you can easily scramble up it to see the back of the arch. A trickier scramble leads you into the opening in the arch as seen from the approach trail. These are great places to shoot with an ultra-wide lens. I very much appreciated the 12 mm setting on the Sigma, but a 14 mm should also be fine. Much less than that and you'll be chopping off pieces of the composition or needing to stitch multiple images.
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument:
We stayed at the Circle D motel in Escalante, which offered a fine room with WiFi along with an excellent front porch for chatting with neighbors for $55/night. In retrospect, we should have camped in the park for the majority of the time to reduce travel time and avoid having to drive poorly maintained roads in bad light. We easily wasted 2 hours/day driving and missed the southern destinations in the park (e.g., Sunset Arch) as a result. No biggie; we’ll come back and camp the next time now that we know the lay of the land.
Sites in Escalante are accessed via Hole-in-the-Rock Road, a 50+ mile long unpaved road that starts just east of town. All major trailheads and canyons are clearly marked. The stretch of road to the Egypt turn-off was in excellent condition and could be driven at 40+ MPH. South of Egypt, the road went downhill, and we had to negotiate some heavily rutted sections. Don't go farther south than Egypt if you're new to driving on poorly maintained dirt roads. The spurs leading to different trailheads varied considerably: the spur to the dinosaur tracks was just fine, while to spur to Egypt required getting out and scouting sections of road to plan a route that wouldn't get us stuck in wet clay, bogged down in mud, or high-centered on exposed rock.
The park has a completely different feel than National Parks. The trails are not marked other than occasional cairns left by previous groups, and there are no services within the park. You're on your own once you step foot into the park. The upside is that you won't run into tour groups.
Neon Canyon & Golden Cathedral (Escalante):
We picked the toughest hike and drive to start. The rangers at the visitors center strongly advised against attempting to take our PT Cruiser on the ten-mile spur to the Egypt trailhead. His main advice was to drive to the first wash, which was five miles into the drive, and turn around if we even flinched at crossing it. Fortunately, the car has good ground clearance and approach/departure angles for a street vehicle, and we were able to make it to the parking lot with minimal scraping. We were the only 2WD vehicle there; everyone else had Jeeps or trucks with off-road packages.
Disregard Martres's photographer's route to the canyon and stick with the established trail. His route is geographically shorter but requires following a compass bearing over sand and route-finding over hill and dale. At the end, you descend to the river by sliding down 100 m of sandy slopes. Two two-person groups left the trailhead at the same time as us and took the marked route; they arrived well before us.
Neon Canyon is one of the most beautiful canyons I've seen. It's filled with beautiful sandstone, richly colored desert varnish, and cottonwood trees that glow in the sun. The ripples in the water often send wild patterns of light onto the sandstone walls. The Golden Cathedral is equally beautiful, and we arrived as a group of folks were rappelling into the pool at the bottom. I'd recommend getting an early start to arrive before noon; that way you'll catch the Golden Cathedral in the shade. The direct light that spills in after noon leads to a lot of contrast. There are apparently some petroglyphs in the canyon that we missed.
Climbing back up the sandy slopes didn't seem appealing for the return, so we decided to head back by the standard route, which involved heading a mile up the Escalante River and turning left to catch a trail up Fence Canyon. Here's where things got interesting: we hadn't followed the standard route in, so we didn't have a memory of its twists and turns. This lead to a couple of route-finding errors on the way out that burned about two hours of our time.
This is a stout hike that's about 10 miles round-trip and involves a 300 m drop from the trailhead to the canyon. There are numerous stream crossings during the section along the Escalante River that get thigh deep. We wore our hiking boots down to the river, left them on the bank, and switched to Chacos for the hike down Neon Canyon.
I primarily used my 28–75 to photograph the canyon and cathedral and switched to my 12-24 for a few shots of the cathedral and 70–300 for the rappellers. I brought my tripod and ended up using it for a few shots in the cathedral, but you could get away without one by bumping the ISO to 800 or so.
This is a prime hike for bringing along a water filter to refill before starting the hike out. There's apparently another beautiful side canyon upstream of Neon Canyon. Something for next time.
Twentymile Dinosaur Tracksite (Escalante):
This is an easy drive and scramble up onto a sandstone outcropping. You're rewarded with hundreds of dinosaur tracks preserved in the rock. In many cases, you actually see a dozen or more footprints in succession, and we found one set of tracks where you could see the trail drag mark between the footprints. This was the most amazing thing we saw on the trip, if not our lives.
The footprints are fairly shallow and difficult to photograph.
Devil's Garden (Escalante):
Another easy drive that takes you to the garden. You're at the mercy of the light on this one. I've yet to figure out how to predict whether nature will provide a beautiful sunrise/sunset or not.
Escalante Petrified Forest State Park (Escalante)
This Utah state park lies a few minute’s drive from the town of Escalante and offers about two miles of steep trail that wander through petrified tree trunks, piñon pine, and juniper. The petrified wood has some fantastic, iridescent colors that are easily photographed. I used my 28–75 with a polarizer for all the shots. The polarizer really helped tame the harsh glare from the sun.
Spooky Canyon (Escalante):
The ranger at the visitor's center advised not trying to take our PT Cruiser here due to ruts in Hole-in-the-Rock Road south of Egypt. However, once we mentioned having driven it to Egypt earlier in the week, he said that we won't have a problem. That turned out to be the case.
The hike to the canyon shouldn't be a problem for anyone in even fair condition. The canyon is dry, tight, and filled with photographic opportunities. We left our packs and the entrance and brought the D700 with 28–75 and tripod. You'll need the tripod to stay near your base ISO and stop down. The sun streams down to the floor at mid-day, which is good or bad depending on what you want to do.
You can follow the canyon to the back, pop up, and walk back across slickrock to where you left your pack to make it a one-way trip.
Peek-a-Boo Canyon (Escalante):
This canyon can be entered from both the top and bottom. Both had deep pools when we visited, and we opted not to explore the canyon after folks told us that Spooky was far more interesting.
Dry Fork Narrows (Escalante):
Once you visit these two canyons, Dry Fork Narrows is a fun hike in the other direction that leads up a wash. We followed it to the end, popped out onto a sandy plane, and followed our compass back to the parking area.
Zebra & Tunnel Slots (Escalante):
These were high on our list, but we backed off both days due to rain.
Calf Creek Falls (Escalante):
This is a beautiful creekside hike that passes Anastazi ruins and pictographs to end at a wonderful waterfall. Bring a neutral density filter and a tripod for some fun shots. A 28 mm lens is plenty to capture the entirety of the falls.
Narrows (Zion National Park)
We rented canyoneering boots, neoprene socks, walking sticks, and dry bags from Zion Adventure Company. The bill for two days of rental was about $90. You'll want all of these things! The water was 49 F and between ankle and thigh deep for our trip, and the air temperature around 70 F. Both of us wore long-sleeve polypro tops and threw on a fleece to avoid chills toward the end.
Both Orderville Canyon and the Wall Street sections offer all sorts of photographic potential. You'll see plenty of other hikers to add a sense of scale to your photographs. A little patience will let you shot the canyon empty, although this gets tough downstream of Orderville.
I used my 28–75 for every shot and only needed my tripod when shooting with the 10-stop ND.
Subway (Zion National Park)
Don't despair if you can't score a permit prior to arriving at the park. People occasionally cancel their reservations, and slots open up. We arrived at the park without a permit and inquired about walk-up ones at the Backcountry Desk. The ranger checked online and told us that four were available. We darted to our hotel room and reserved a pair. You can pick up your permit the day before or day of your trip, although I'd recommend doing so the day before. The desk gets crowded in the morning with people seeking walk-up permits.
The hike has a steep descent to the creek followed by numerous stream crossings and scrambling over boulders to get to the Subway. There are numerous waterfalls to photograph along the way, and, if you pay attention, some impressive dinosaur tracks. They're about an hour from the point where you hit the river, on the left. Keep an eye out for grey sandstone slabs pitched at 45 degrees right by the trail.
We wore our canyoneering boots from the previous day and brought the dry bags. The latter proved unnecessary. You could get all the way to the Subway without getting wet, but it would entail scrambling high up the banks of the creek in several places. It's far easier to splash through knee-deep water on occasion.
Don't forget to photograph water flowing through the crack about 100 m downstream of the Subway.
The Subway is only about 30 m long and in direct sun during the middle of the day, which leads to hot spots in the composition. The sun disappeared behind the canyon walls around 1600, and I was able to get some good shots. The 28 mm setting on my Tamron was again plenty wide. A tripod is necessary to shoot at base ISO and stop down once the area is in shadow.
You can see some dinosaur tracks about 1.5 miles downstream of the Subway. Look for white slabs of rock pitched at a 45-degree angle on the north side of the river. They’re a couple of yards from the bank, and you’ll pass right by them if you’re walking the trail.
Be sure to check out David Pettit's gallery in Springdale. He opens it in the evenings and is exceptionally friendly and knowledgeable about the area. His photos are beautifully composed, technically excellent, and tastefully post-processed.
Nikon D700: The sensor's incredible tonal range almost lets me overlook the funky ergonomics and ninety-something percent viewfinder.
Sigma 12–24 f/4.5–5.6: You get what you pay for. It never gets really sharp, even when stopped down, and flares easily. Optimal sharpness appears around f/11, at which point it is even across the frame but not great anywhere. I'd recommend saving up for the twice-as-expensive Nikkor if you need to make big prints. That said, this lens is good enough for most purposes and 12 mm on a full-frame sensor can produce to very dramatic compositions.
Tamron 28–75 f/2.8: This lens continues to impress me. Wide open, it is sharp in the center at wide and mid-range settings but turns to mush as you approach the edges. Uncorrected spherical aberration gives the image a dreamy appearance wide open at telephoto settings. Stopping down to f/4 clears it up. But stop it down to f/5.6 or f/8 and images get sharp almost all of the way to the corners. I've taken the Nikkor 24–70 for a spin, and it trounces the Tamron at f/2.8 and f/4, but it's a surprisingly close race beyond that. Not bad considering that the Nikkor costs six times as much! You can see side-by-side shots here. It’s hard to justify the Nikkor unless you’re in situations where shooting wide open is important. My main complaint is that it's awfully easy to cross-thread filters on the Tamron's plastic threads.
Nikkor 70–300 f/4.5–5.6 VR : I bought this lens after seeing how awful a landscape lens the 70–200 f/2.8 VR is. The 70–300 gives good corner-to-corner performance at f/8 and f/11 in the 70–200 range but softens a bit toward 300. As a bonus, it shares the 67 mm filter diameter of the Tamron. The 70–200 f/2.8 VR will continue to be my go-to lens for weddings and portraits, but the 70–300 is a better nature lens and much lighter & smaller as well.
B+W 10-stop ND: It's definitely not neutral, as it warms the color temperature by about 1500 K. It worked beautifully in bright sun, but exposures exceeded the D700's inexplicable 30 s exposure limit in shade. A Sing-Ray Var-ND just made the list of things to buy.
Velbon 640 & Acratech GV2: A leveling base would be nice, but a good combo otherwise. I noticed that tightening the ballhead on the GV2 very slightly shifts the lens when shooting my 70–300 at the long end, which alters framing a bit. It’s not noticeable when shooting a short telephoto or wider lens.
RRS L-bracket: I purchased the bracket for this trip and can't believe that I've been shooting off a tripod without one for so long. The bracket lets you shoot the camera in portrait orientation without flopping the ballhead over on its side and loosing about 6" of height.