Virgin River

There are always those places that hold your attention and draw you back time and time again. For me, one of these places is Zion National Park in southwestern Utah. The park is world-renown for its awe-inspiring beauty, from soaring, majestic mountains, to red rock formations that defy conventional description, to its tree-filled main canyon, an oasis in the desert that makes you feel as if you walked onto a different realm altogether.

I’ve been in the park more than a few times, and I’ve been known to drive a few hundred, or more, miles out of my way just to drive through it. There is, however, one feature of the park that draws me back: the Virgin River.

The Virgin River is not, by any means, the mightiest river around. Far, far from it, and most days, it is quiet and unassuming and you can walk though it without getting the tops of your shoes wet. However, when the flash floods come, and they do, this small river becomes a torrent in its own right, and it has cut through and down into Zion National Park, leaving impossibly high and sheer canyon walls and small hidden treasures.

For this small adventure, we’ll work our way from north to south along the Virgin River.

Subway PoolsOur first stop is called The Subway. Here, the river has cut a near-tunnel through the solid rock. It’s not a true tunnel, as there is an opening, perhaps just a couple of feet wide, at the top. The walls are gently curved and rounded, however, and it resembles more than anything else its namesake: a subway. The river seems to be so gentle here; a thin film of water, not even an inch high, covers the entire floor. And yes, as you might expect, it is exceptionally slick, too, and you need to be mindful of where you put your feet. The highlight, though, are a few emerald green pools of water. The pools are a few feet deep, deep enough that you don’t want to fall in them, and just deep enough for the emerald green color to appear. In any event, The Subway is a highly photogenic location.

Archangel Falls

Just downriver from The Subway is a small, gentle series of cascades known as Archangel Falls, or sometimes, Arch Angel Cascades. To me, this is one of the most beautiful locations in the entire park, if not this entire area of Utah. The river still isn’t very large at this point, but what water there is cascades over a long series of sandstone shelves. The water flows every which way here, and when viewed from the bottom, the cascades really show their beauty. With the high canyon walls behind it, and the characteristic glow of reflected light on sandstone, the scene is absolutely breathtaking. A small stand of foliage at the top completes the tableau.

Swift Narrows

Further downriver, many miles in fact, the Virgin River is more of a river. Small side streams and springs along the way feed into the river, and it slowly begins to build. Along with that is the power to cut through canyon walls. The Narrows is a section where the walls are staggeringly high, almost one thousand feet, and the river runs from edge to edge. The effect is, well, dramatic, to say the least. This small river is now a quiet powerhouse. For me, I love the feel of the blue-green waters of the river and the high sandstone walls; the color combination just cannot be beat and again it feels like you are walking through a different time and a different place.

Subway FallsWe’ll leave the Virgin River with one more view of the Subway. This view is at the beginning of the Subway, looking up into it. I really like how the small waterfalls are formed between the pools, all flowing into a fault on the river’s bottom. This scene, perhaps, is my favorite one of the Subway.

The Virgin River cuts through Zion National Park, leaving us a myriad of wonders to enjoy.

Zion’s Autumn

As autumn creeps across the country, the landscape begins to change. Gone is the lush green of the summer, replaced, instead by the subtler, yet equally vibrant, hues of fall. Soft golds and yellows; rich oranges and reds, and every color in between begin to dot the landscape, in pockets here and there, and in vast swathes of color in other places. Even the desert Southwest dons fall colors, and especially Zion National Park, in Utah.

Zion is a very interesting park, and each of its different sections presents a completely different feel. Along its eastern edge one can find twisted sandstone shapes and canyons, with etched lines in the rock that defy the eye. Along its far western section are staggeringly large canyons, full of evergreen forests that seem to go on forever. But its middle section, where the Virgin River flows, is one area of the park that relishes fall. Here, the cottonwoods line the bank of the river, and it is those cottonwoods that turn into vibrant yellows come autumn. As the river flows through the canyon, carving its way down the soft sandstone walls, it flows past some of the most beautiful scenery in the country, and it is here that Zion’s autumn really shows off.

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On the right time of the right day, the Virgin River seems to run with pure gold. The light reflecting off the canyon’s walls softens everything, and adds a rich hue to it; by the time the light reflects off the river, it is mostly gold anyway, completing the golden illusion. As the cottonwoods reach over the river, they add their own rich hue, and the result is an absolute surreal scene.

The river has more tricks up its sleeve, however, for it sometimes flows over small waterfalls and rapids, just for a change of pace. In this section of the park, none of the falls are very high, and none of the rapids very fast, but it does help to vary the tone and the tempo of the river as it cuts through the canyon. And it provides a different set of views, too. As it makes its way over these sections, the cottons still continue their march down to the waterline, and some very intimate views can be found, as long as you know where to look.

Virgin ViewTake, for example, this small scene. The gentle flowing waterfalls add their own touch to the overall sense of peace in the canyon. The trees reaching down to, and around, the bend just seem to pull one into and beyond the view and the arching canyon wall helps pull you along. Not far from here the canyon walls completely close in, squeezing out the trees completely. This just adds to the complexity and character of the river’s journey through the canyon.

A mile or so downriver this spot the river picks up speed as it rounds an area known as “Big Bend.” Here, the canyon takes a relatively sharp turn, taking the river along with it, or perhaps the river is the one making the turn and taking the canyon along with it? Either way, this is a beautiful area, and can make for some beautiful panoramic photographs.

Zion's Bend

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Zion National Park is rated as one of the ten best places in the country for its fall color, and it is small wonder why. The Virgin River and its attendant canyon surely accounts for almost all of that rating, for after all, red rock, beautiful water, and amazing fall colors are an excellent combination. This is not to take away from Zion in other seasons, of course, or any other area of the park, for it is amazing throughout the park in any time of the year.

The river runs through the canyon and beyond; not far from here, just a few more miles in fact, the tall canyon walls begin to widen and then fade away as the river makes its way out of the park and into the lands beyond. That’s way of most rivers, of course, and not a problem, for the beauty that it leaves behind is beyond amazing.

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Fiery House – Mule Canyon Ruin

Fiery House

The ancient ones have moved on, but their legacy in the Cedar Mesa area, Utah, remains, even to this day. The Ancient Pueblo People were accomplished builders and what they built tends to last. They selected their sites carefully, used the best materials they had available, and built with precision and care. They also built what they needed, no more and no less, a trait that helps their buildings withstand the forces of time. They often situated their structures in canyon walls, sometimes near the bottom and sometimes near the top. It’s clear that they chose the best canyons for their purposes, and when they found one to their liking, they made extensive use of it. Mule Canyon must have been a good spot for building, since it houses several small complexes in its walls. (Road Canyon, containing the Fallen Roof Ruin, was another excellent location.)

This small granary, or perhaps dwelling, located about a mile down up Mule Canyon, and, at first glance, there is little to distinguish it from the countless other buildings in the area. There is a bit of light magic that happens here, though, and whether by coincidence or design it is impossible to say. As the sun rises and light reflects throughout the canyon, this ruin lights up, and it is easy to see why it has earned the moniker “House on Fire.”

It is good to reflect upon the time that was, and the people that built and used this building. They had a hard life by today’s standards, yet, they not only survived by thrived, as a people and as a culture. We should do so well, and hopefully, those who come long after us remember us. We don’t know what our ruins will be like, but hopefully they are symbols and signs representing the best we have to offer, just as this ruin is.

Be one with Mule Canyon

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Valley Monuments

Valley Monuments

The desert Southwest calls me, it’s siren song whispering to all that I am. No matter how hard I try to stay away, time and again I am drawn into the depths of the Southwest, where I always find the peace and solace that I hold so dear. There is something about the shifting sands, monument after monument swallowing the landscape, and azure skies that resonates deeply within. Needless to say, I spend quite a lot of time looking for exactly these places.

One of my favorite haunts is Monument Valley in the Navajo Nation. However, just north of Monument Valley lies another extraordinary area: Valley of the Gods. This valley is where Road Canyon (Road Canyon just happens be where the Fallen Roof ruin is) exits Cedar Mesa and opens back up into the desert. As the canyon falls away, monuments, the tall, red rock buttes and spires that dominate the landscape, take over, standing tall and proud, piecing the very sky. These buttes are impressive from far away; up close their size overwhelms your senses. As you continue south a few miles, the landscape gives way to Monument Valley proper. Here, you are free to wander the fantastic landscape at will. A dirt road cuts through the valley, making it possible to quickly delve deep into it. From the road, you can start your own journey on foot, and given how few visit the valley, you’ll quickly find utter and complete solitude. The deeper you go, the quieter it is as the routine civilized world is left behind. As always, you need to be aware that you are in a harsh, unforgiving environment. The desert doesn’t tolerate those who feel they are immune to it, and the ill-prepared quickly find out that the desert doesn’t give second chances. Still, to have the privilege of wandering right up to the base of these extraordinary monuments is well worth it. Touching walls of sandstone that tower one thousand feet, or more, over your head, perfectly perpendicular, is a profound experience.

There is something very pristine about this known, but little traveled, area. The landscape remains pure and just as it has been forever. Traces of humans remain here, but very few. Overlooked by most, this area is exactly the kind of place that I seek.

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Fallen Roof

Fallen Roof

The Ancient Pueblo People, formally called the Anasazi, appeared in archeology of the Cedar Mesa, Utah area a thousand or so years ago. They were master builders, and they often built their buildings into the alcoves of canyon walls, and often far up from the floor, seemingly defying gravity. Their stonework is impressive even to this day, and they built with care and precision, allowing many of the works to remain looking like they were just finished yesterday.

Although their buildings have withstood the ravages of time, the same cannot be said of some of the canyons they chose. These small granaries, tucked into Road Canyon, were probably unremarkable when first built. However, part of the alcove’s roof has fallen, leaving a dramatic and impressive design in the new roof, that’s all changed. Add in some reflected light, and the ruin known as “Fallen Roof” takes on a mystery and magic all of its own.

I’ve known about the Fallen Roof ruin for a while now, and it was a delight and a joy to finally find and experience it. I was reasonably certain I knew its approximate location, so I had a decent chance of success. Being situated in a remote area, however, certainly added to the challenge. Cedar Mesa, located in Southeastern Utah in roughly the middle of absolutely nowhere, today is wild and no longer tamed; its canyons are rugged and deep, with steep side and no easy egress if something goes wrong. It pays to be exceptionally careful and cautious; cell phones do not work, and once you head down the four wheel drive roads you disappear into the wilderness completely. As you head deeper in country, you begin to appreciate the extraordinary beauty that abounds. Once parked, it was a good mile or so hike down into Road Canyon, winding through a small tributary into the main canyon itself, finding my way through a countryside that once was teeming with people. Today, only the birds and a few smaller animals remarked on my passage.

Once I was where I thought the ruin was it was still difficult to locate; it is tucked into an alcove so perfectly that it looks almost as if the canyon grew around the building. Even when I did see it, getting to it was problematic, since it was located higher up the canyon wall than I was expecting. Luckily, it was possible to find a route up to it, although I will say I was pretty nervous in a few spots. Still, once the climb was made, the experience of being there was overwhelming. Just standing there in the silence of the alcove you could hear the sounds of days gone by, and you could feel the strong presence of the location.

The Ancient Pueblo People built to last, and even today it is not always easy to see their ruins, so cleverly that they situated them into the natural surroundings, and getting to them is often another story entirely. Still, they serve as excellent reminders of the spirit of these proud people, and let us remember them via Fallen Roof.

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Arching Color: Flowers in Arches

Arching Color

It had been a hot, dry day in Arches National Park, Utah. The wind, although gentle, was blowing and making a dry day even drier. Although there had been rain recently, it was already a distant memory. As the hours went by the heat was becoming relentless.

Yet, there in the distant sky was the hint of relief. A thickening of the clouds low on the horizon promised, perhaps, that moisture would come. As the day continued it slowly turned into a race of heat versus the incoming storm, and eventually it was well apparent that the storm was going to win this race.

The incoming storm presented opportunity for me, if only I could take advantage of it. As much as I adore Arches National Park, and it is one of my favorite National Parks, creating compelling photographs there can be somewhat of a challenge. Despite the amazing arches, and surrounding red rock, when the skies are clear blue it, at least in my opinion, makes the resulting photographs somewhat flat. Best to have something interesting in the skies. White, fluffy clouds are quite interesting. Storms are interesting, too, and that’s what captured my interest. For I knew that if a storm came, the park would transform itself into an amazing place to be.

The flowers knew it, too. They appeared to become more vibrant than they did earlier in the day, although perhaps it was merely against that now ominous backdrop that made them appear that way. They reached for the sky, wanting to catch and taste the sweet water as it tumbled to the ground. Best not to waste a single drop!

Shortly after I made this photograph the storm delivered as promised, and skies opened up, spilling the much needed water onto the flowers and the desert.

Enjoy the colors of Arches!

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Zion’s Curiosity

Zion's Curiosity

The world around us is full of wonders, some small, and some large. Some of them are blatantly obvious and others much harder to discern. For those with a keen sense of curiosity, finding them is a challenge in and of itself, and richly rewarding. But what happens when those wonders are curious about you?

This is exactly what happened to me in Zion National Park, Utah. I was chasing a sunset on a winter day. It was cold, I was tired, and my usual curiosity was nowhere to be found. I simply wanted to hike the last mile to a point where I thought the photograph might be made as quickly as possible; I reasoned that I would come back to this area a different day, since it was quite beautiful and didn’t deserve to be bypassed. As I rounded a bend on the mountain trail, I glanced ahead.

There, curiosity had found me in the form a bighorn sheep. She was already on the trail, and she knew I was coming. She wasn’t afraid, really, but she was timid all the same. She held her ground, and I stayed well back. We looked at each other for a bit, and we each relaxed, just a bit. It was an amazing moment as we held each other’s gaze, each with questions on our minds, each wondering about the other, each deciding the other was OK after all. We parted ways, each richer for the experience, and each having found a friend in the other.

It goes without saying that wildlife, especially in the backcountry, always deserves the utmost respect. Be careful, and do not approach. Do not act in an aggressive or threatening manner, and most of all, be aware that we are in their world.

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Mesa Sun: An iconic arch in Canyonlands

Mesa Arch

The world held its breath and was utterly quiet while I waited at Mesa Arch. The moment just before the sun breaks the horizon is always a magical, yet tense, moment and breaths are usually held. There is a certain stillness just before that moment; a sense of anticipation, a sense of wonder and awe, and the dual senses of solemnness and joy, all rolled into one.

The first ray of light peaked out, at first tentatively, but quickly followed by conviction. The world was even quieter than before, it that was at all possible. Without any further prelude the sun roared over the horizon and its jubilant rays spread everywhere, bringing light and life to the day. The world let out its collective breath and the day had now well and true begun.

Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park, Utah, glowed brightly as it too celebrated the sun’s arrival, liberating it from the dark of the night. The valley, far below, basked in the dawn’s early light, and began to soak in the what warmth it could from the cold winter day, for it was well below zero when this photograph was made. Of course, it isn’t the cold that proves difficult. It is hiking out to the arch well before dawn, then standing there waiting for the sun to rise. You might have heard it said that it is always darkest before dawn, and I can assure you that it is always coldest before dawn, too. There was a slight breeze; not enough to be much of a bother, but enough to get your attention. Still, knowing what was going to happen made my heart race.

As the sun rose higher and began to clear the arch, the warm dawn glow faded, but the memory of that amazing sunrise will live on forever.

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Hoodoo Sunrise: Winter in Bryce Canyon

Hoodoo Sunrise

The great thing about Bryce Canyon National Park, in Utah, is that it takes on a different feel and flavor as the seasons change. During the summer months, it is hot and dry and sometimes quite stark looking, yet beautiful and awe-inspiring at the same time. During the winter months, the same scene takes on a softer, more serene feel.

The carpet of snow, to me, doesn’t feel like it is smothering Bryce Canyon’s hoodoos, but rather, wrapping them up for now, hiding their base, and saving the bottom of the canyon for Spring to unwrap. Still, I adored the contrast of the bright orange hoodoos as they poked out of their cocoon. The orange was especially prevalent this morning since the sunrise was full of pinks and reds.

I had set out to make a winter photograph of Bryce Canyon and spent weeks of planning, or longer, if you count the time I spent waiting for winter. I had watched the forecast carefully, and had planned my travels accordingly. It would be chilly, but such is the nature of winter, and really, you have to put up with cold temperatures now and then. I rose well before the sun, a not uncommon event for me, and headed off to my chosen point. Oddly, it was called Sunrise Point, but that was just sort of happenstance.

As I waited for the sun in the cold temperatures a wind came up. I don’t know how cold it was, but my fingers tell me it was exceptionally cold. They’re pretty good judges of such things. A cold morning, made colder. I was concerned, too, about the cloud cover, since it was almost complete over the sky, which is not the best for photography. Still, there was a very narrow gap where the sun could squeeze through.

I waited, none too patiently, and eventually the sun rolled out of bed and began its climb into the sky. This photograph was made exactly when the sun broke the horizon; a moment of beautiful colors which raced across the sky. Before I could even think about another photograph, however, the sun ducked behind the cloud bank. That was, alas, the last time I saw the sun on this trip, but as Hoodoo Sunrise will attest, that’s OK.

I can’t wait to see what the hoodoos hold me in the next season, but whatever it is, it is sure to be amazing and beyond beautiful.

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