Monday, December 24, 2012

Monument Valley

     Monument Valley is located in the Navajo Nation, on the Border of Utah and Arizona.  It is further than 200 miles from an interstate in any direction.  In this part of the country, the roads stretch for miles upon miles like silver ribbons glistening straight and true in the desert sun, fading into monoliths anywhere from 400 to 1,000 feet tall, or melting sideways and out of sight beyond colorful hills and plateaus.  

     With the help of many Old Westerns that were filmed here over the decades, Monument Valley has become the quintessential vision of the American West.  The scene of the wide valley floor with The Mittens and Merrick buttes is in some way familiar to everyone, even people across the world, because it has shown up in so many scenes.  Director John Ford and actor John Wayne were particularly fond of Monument Valley.

     This Navajo land is some of the most colorful in the entire country.  You will find every color of the rainbow here.  Bright orange sand dotted with purple and yellow plants and flowers.  Sparse, brave green trees reach for the sky.  The mountains are layered with deep purples, indigos, and maroons.  Depending on the time of day, shadows cast different hues upon the vast landscape.  The skies are a brilliant blue, at times smattered with desert storms that leave rainbows stretching the distance and summer monsoon clouds which are responsible for the Valley’s famous sunsets.

     Here is the road that takes you directly into the Valley of the Gods:

     Over the decades many people have stopped to photograph the road from this very spot.

     As you near the Valley of the Gods, you will see these roadside stands where Navajo vendors sell numerous arts and crafts, including their well known blankets which are made by hand using wool from the sheep that they raise.  

     This stand is empty, probably due to the late season.  In the Summer when temperatures are in the 80‘s and the tourist season is high, these will be bustling.  

     There are very good amenities in the town right outside the Monument.  There is a campground, a lodge, a restaurant and a market.  We stayed at the campground, which we very much enjoyed.  The sites are shaded and sandy, set up against a towering sandstone cliff. 

     We were there on October 28th, and we were only one of three campers at Goulding’s.  One of the reasons being that the Summer is by far the heaviest at Monument Valley, the other reason being that it got down to 30 degrees that night and made for some cold camping.  But if you’re adventurous or just a little silly, it’s a great time to go camping because you’ll have peace and quiet of the likes that you’ll never find during the busy season.  

     As of 2012, the Monument is 7 dollars for each car.  You pay this every time you enter the monument, so if you’re planning on a sunset and a sunrise there, be prepared to pay the fee twice.  

     There is an enormous well-lit parking lot, big enough for a couple hundred cars and a dozen or so tourist buses.  Attached to the parking lot is a gift shop, museum, restaurant, and hotel.  In front of all this is a big cement and brick platform where you can overlook the valley and get a prime view of  The Mittens, the most famous of the Valley’s shapes:

     To the left of the path are a pair of pretty sandstone rocks.  A lot of people stand up on these to get their picture with The Mittens, or use them as an interesting point for depth of field in their photographs:

     There is a 17 mile drive around the Valley floor.  This drive can be done in most regular cars, but I wouldn’t necessarily suggest it.  There are all-terrain vehicle tours that you can join if you don’t want to worry about navigating all the potholes and bumps.  It’s a very rough road, one that our rental car took to easily enough but it still wasn’t enjoyable jutting along at 5 mph while worrying about what the gravel might be doing to the car.  So we ventured down to the valley floor and just stuck to a couple overlooks.  Luckily, that’s all you need for a good sunset anyhow.  

     Here we stopped and were greeted by one of the many stray dogs that roam these lands.  She was very sweet and just wanted a little attention:

     The left Mitten from the Valley floor:

     After a little exploring, we parked our car off the side of the 17-mile drive road well out of the way, and walked across to an unencumbered view of the floor.  

     From above as you look down, you will see the stretch of road cut across the valley floor like a sandy scar.  And from the road itself you’re looking through plumes of dust and grit and other cars.  But we were finally able to park, cross the road and make our way onto a solid rocky ledge that overlooked this unhindered view.  

     This is were we stayed to watch the sunset:

     It was so peaceful sitting and watching the sun and shadows play on some of the most famous monuments in the whole world.  The Mittens and other ancient monoliths are what remains from the ancestral Rocky Mountains.  What you see still standing up out of the red sandstone is rock that is 160 million years old and has been shaped by erosion over the millennia:

     And the last light was on them.  

     We were blessed with a full moon rising directly above the East Mitten.

     We went back up to the platform to watch the day fade completely into night.  In the Summertime, the sunsets can be absolutely dazzling.  In the Fall the monsoon desert season is over and the clouds and sunsets are a bit more subtle.  

     Monument Valley is an enchanting place after dark as well.  With the exception of the streetlights in the parking lot behind you, the sky is pitch black and you can see many stars.  

     In this photo you can see that the front left side is lit by the streetlights, but the rest of the valley floor is completely lit up by the light of the full bright moon:

     Cars ever so slowly make their way back up from the 17-mile drive down below.  

     One car moved slowly towards me and its lights created a faux moon, which looked interesting with the real moon hanging above:

     Monument Valley is a timeless vision of the American West.  It is also sacred Navajo land.  Most will stay to watch the sunset but it’s an even more enthralling experience to wait around and watch the stars come out.  Things quiet down and you can feel as though you are more a part of what you are looking out upon. 

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Mesa Arch Sunrise in Canyonlands

     It may seem like a daunting task, attempting to get an original shot of the Mesa Arch Sunrise.  You’ve seen it in calendars, on motivational posters, in documentaries, during fine art exhibitions, and in countless online images.  The photo is everywhere, but for good reason.  

     It’s truly one of the most outstanding moments of nature that you will ever witness.  The sun coming up over the Island in the Sky in Canyonlands National Park, filling up the dark twisted canyons thousands of feet below with soft light, illuminating the colors of the eternal desert landscape.  The alpenglow of red morning rays scorch the massive underside of the arch until it looks like it’s burning.  

     A moment later the sun peaks over the horizon in the shape of a dazzling star.  This is a side of the sun that you’ve never seen before; you’ll feel as though you’re meeting it for the first time.  The phenomenon only lasts a matter of minutes, (probably no more than 15 or 20) but it will enthrall you.  It’s so pure, so beautiful, so intense and extraordinary that on dark lonely days you’ll think back to the time you watched that sunrise and it’ll warm your soul from thousands of miles away.  

     The sunrise at Mesa Arch is so popular, you’re going to have to get there before dawn if you want a good chance at photographing it.  It was Saturday, October 27th.  This date wouldn’t be considered the busy season, but the crowds at the Arch would reflect otherwise.  

     There were over 40 photographers at the arch that morning.  It was 22 degrees and Venus was lying low in the Eastern sky.

     This photo won't mean much to anyone except for me.  It’s a silhouette of the Arch just after I got my tripod and camera set up in one of the last remaining spots under the Arch.  

     Here is the same exact spot just as the sun was slowly creeping up into the sky:

     And more sun...

     And then there is more sun.  Before its rays actually crest the La Sal Mountains in the distance, the alpenglow starts.  This light is so fierce and so beautiful that it appears to set the underside of Mesa Arch on fire. 

     But my favorite part is what comes next- when the sun comes up over the horizon.  It becomes wedged between the mountains in the distance and the crest of the arch right in front of you, creating the famed “Star”.

     Though it may seem like a challenge to get a unique shot of this spectacular sight, I promise you won’t be thinking about that when you’re standing there behind your camera.  Though everyone will agree that it’s outstanding, each person sees it in a different way.  Some see the contrast of dark rocks against yellow sky.  Others see all warm tones.  Some see rays behind Washer Woman Arch in the distance.  Some see the alpenglow, others see the star, some will see both.  Some see an intimate view, others will see a vast one.  Just point your camera to whatever seems right, and bring your colors and shapes back to justice in your digital darkroom at home.  

     If you’re like me and get there on a morning where there were so many photographers standing under the arch that our tripods were all intertwined, then the spot that you pick will be the spot that you’re stuck with for the entire sunrise.  Shoot the same frame again and again and watch the light change, or swivel the head of your tripod around to get as much versatility as you can.  You will probably want a wide angle lens.  It’s a challenging but invigorating experience.  Or, learn from my mistake and don’t go on a weekend but perhaps a Monday or a Wednesday during the offseason, and perhaps get lucky enough to have the whole thing to yourself.

     It gets warmer and warmer.

     I was standing in the middle of the arch where the rocks are built up a bit higher than they are on the sides.  Next time I am here I will get a different spot, though I liked the sand at my feet: distant relatives of Mesa Arch, separated by the power of erosion.

     I'm not sure what created these balls of light which I like to call "sunflakes".  It only happened this intensely during this one photo even though I was snapping them every several seconds.  I believe this must have been the moment when the maximum amount of sun shone through.  The rays are at their longest and the orange light under the arch is at its brightest.  

      Thanks to a wide lens (17mm) you’d never guess that there were about 15 people just to my left.

     To capture the best star, set your camera to its smallest aperture, your exposure to long, and your ISO (where it should be for most nature shots) at 100.

     The Star does not last long, the sun rises too quickly.  Just keep shooting.   

     Before you know it the rays are smaller and your star is disappearing.  

     And then it’s over and the sun is officially above the horizon and behind the Arch.  The light is bursting forth into Canyonlands and revealing the mystery of the desert wilderness.  This is a good time to take advantage of the sidelight.  Here is a view of the canyon just to the North of the Arch:

     The Island in the Sky:

     That infamous desert haze, making blue shadows in the distance:

     A nice landscape portrait of me that I like as I sit tired and happy after the early morning’s events:

     I’m not sure this is an especially good photograph but I like the different perspective of Mesa Arch from afar with some fall leaves in the foreground:

     Mesa Arch during mid-morning sun:

     I had it to myself now that the desirable light was dissolved.  But at any time of day, Mesa Arch is still a sight to behold.  I attempted to capture the Star again, only this time it was above the Arch during late morning light:

     Doing a little exploring and loving these ancient trees and interesting desert plants clinging to the edge of the cliffs:

     This is one of my favorite desert trees, the Pinyon Pine.  This one looks dead, but I don’t believe that it is.  Its roots keep it alive.  These are some of the toughest trees on the planet.

     Here I am standing about 30 yards beyond the arch.  Look closely and you can see it from it’s Eastern side.  This gives you a sort of perspective of the geologic marvel that the Arch is.  It holds fast to the edge of the cliff face, a straight thousand foot drop to the bottom of the canyon.  

     Sometimes Canyonlands National Park gets overlooked because of its famous neighbor, Arches National Park.  But it’s more than worth a visit.  The terrain is completely different than Arches, the landscapes more vast, and there is a stillness here that is unrivaled.

     Mesa Arch is a beautiful wonder, one that I recommend everyone should go see.  And if you can, head out into the desert in the dark hours of early morning.  Drive slowly through the flat roads of the Island in the Sky, count the stars as you hike the half mile out to it, and wait for one of the most beautiful sunrises you’ll ever see.