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Canyonlands 2021


Please enjoy the slideshow above and if interested, continue reading for more insight into the trip and the photographs I took.

During the summer we had decided to Airbnb our motor home since it was mostly just parked on our property. We have been making it available for friends and family anyway so it seemed a no brainer to make a little extra $. All in all the experiment went well and we will probably do it again starting late next spring. After our last guest left the third week in October, we were anxious to use the motor home for a quick trip to Utah.

Our original destination was Natural Bridges in the Bears Ears area. As we were driving there and south of Blanding, google directed us to turn onto a pretty rough dirt road. This didn't seem right at all so I turned around and backtracked to the highway we should've been directed to only to see a sign that the road was closed till the end of the month. Of course nothing showed up on google maps when planning for the trip and we weren't the only ones turned around as we saw others encountering the same closed road sign as we sat there trying to figure out what we would do.

I had planned early last spring to take a trip to the Needles area of Canyonlands only to be thwarted by some mechanical issues with the motor home. It was relatively close to where we were so we decided to head that way. I hadn't been to this area since I attended CRMS in the 70s when we took backpacking trips, spring and fall, out to Utah. I have amazing memories from that time when there was little traffic in these canyons so I was looking forward to being in the southern part of the Canyonlands park again. After turning west, north of Monticello, the scenery began to change as the road descended down a red colored canyon with golden cottonwoods in the bottom. The challenge ahead was to find a camping spot and our preference was to find an off-grid dispersed camping location. We use Campendium to research camping locations and I had glanced at it before we headed out from Blanding but I didn't note any specific locations assuming we would still have internet. Alas, as we drove closer to Canyonlands the internet service disappeared. Going by memory and signs on the road indicating camping options, we found a great spot off a dirt road to Hamburger Rocks.

The primary intention for this trip was to hike and explore. Since we had no way to do any planning, due to not having internet, we decided to head to the park the next morning and figure it out from there. For the rest of the afternoon we settled in, walked the dogs out in the desert, and enjoyed being in Utah once again. I was visually scanning  from our location for possible subjects for some late afternoon photography and saw in the near distance, further down the road, some rock formations. Remembering the name on the road sign, Hamburger Rocks, I decided to take the Jeep for a drive with my camera to check it out. I drove past many occupied campsites much closer together and was grateful to be where we were without any close neighbors. I followed the road down into a a bit of a canyon and found a place to park where I could then hike into the rock formations that were all around.

It was still and quiet as I climbed up into the rocks to a location that gave some nice viewpoints into the landscape. The sun was getting low already and I didn't have too much time to explore so I centered in on a few subjects to play around with composing and set up the tripod. The first scene I worked on was Hamburger Rock Sunset View. Since the walk to the location was short I had my bigger pack with the GFX 50s and various lenses. I brought along some of my Hasselblad lenses that are a part of my Hasselblad 501cm film kit. I acquired a Metabones Speedbooster adapter to use these lenses on the GFX. The native GF lenses for the GFX are outstanding quality but I have been enjoying the results of the Hasselblad lenses. They are famous for their quality and provide a unique feel and softness to the bokeh when opening up the aperture. In many landscape photographs it is an objective to have the frame sharp from front to back but there are cases when it is nice to isolate a subject by having a soft background and/or foreground with a sharp subject. In the case for this photograph I used the CF 80mm, which is the has a 35mm equivalent of 50mm on the GFX. Once I settled on the composition and waited for the light, I figured I would need to create a focus stack as my foreground features were quite close. This involves taking multiple exposures focusing on different points within the frame; usually the immediate foreground, the mid ground and in the distant part of the frame then blending the images in Photoshop. I was counting on the side light of the warm late afternoon sun to create layers by lighting the tops of canyons and ridges to lead the eye to the distant high buttes and the La Sals beyond. As the light peaked I was firing away, foreground focus, mid-ground focus, distant focus. I continued 'til the clouds started to show a little color and the saturation of the red rock was deep. After I returned home and was reviewing the images, I was pleased and a bit amazed at how sharp the images were with this lens given that the brush and rocks in the foreground were only 4 - 5 feet away. I was happy to not have to focus stack for this image and just picked the exposure with the best light to convey the feeling I had taking in this amazing view.

I was wondering if the sky would show anymore color, which it often will just after I've moved my camera, but the sky/clouds will usually get more dramatic after the sun goes below the horizon shining its diffused light on the bottom of any clouds. Since my vision was to capture the light on the tops of the rocks leading into the distance, I decided to capture the other two subjects I had seen nearby while there was still sunlight. I knew I had to act pretty fast as the sun was rapidly moving towards the horizon of the far canyon wall. So much for the 'calm and ease' of doing landscape photography. I have experienced this many times, when working at the very end or beginning of the day, the light changes incredibly fast. This is where the phrase, 'chasing the light' comes in. The first of the next two images I took was Last Light. Nothing amazing about the composition but the light was sweet and the formations in the Utah desert are always fascinating to look at for me. Again the light hitting the tops of the formations helped create some layers that take the eye into the distance. Within a few minutes that light was gone and I turned around behind me to see just the very tops of some 'hamburgers' glowing red and orange so I quickly spun the tripod around composed Hamburger Glow. There is a lot of interest in this photograph that makes me wonder about the geology here, so much layering of the rock.

I then packed up and started walking back down towards the Jeep. As I walked the sky began to display some nice subtle light. I knew I wouldn't have time to capture it with the camera in my pack so I took out my iPhone 11 and took Backlit Burger Row. When I shoot with my phone, I use the Adobe Lightroom App which allows me to shoot in RAW format so that I have the latitude to process the image as I please. Otherwise the phone will create a Jpeg, with its algorithms to auto process it built into the image. Shooting a jpeg makes any adjustments beyond very minor ones impossible. I really appreciate having this option when using the camera in my phone. Granted the lenses are tiny and the sensor is even smaller, I've been able to capture images that are pretty decent as long as there's no pixel peeking.

I was getting ready to cross a wash to get to where the Jeep was parked, when I looked up the wash and saw the scene for Melting Reflections. Again, no time to do anything but get my phone out of my pocket before the light was gone. I still enjoy the process using my phone as I take in the same considerations for composition, lighting and exposure. I'm still creating, not just firing off a snapshot, so I've learned to let go of the difference in the quality and be grateful to have a camera I can use when it's not possible to take the time to set up my other cameras. I love this image. The conditions, colors and features are so unique.

Canyonlands National Park

We headed over to the visitor's center the following morning to get their map and guide for possible hikes. It was early in the day so we settled on a 10 mile hike out to view the confluence of Colorado and Green rivers. Most of the other hikes were much shorter or longer requiring backpacking and permits. I remembered, while on a backpacking trip when I was attending CRMS, that I had done a hike to the confluence and that it was a pretty fabulous view so we set out and I was wondering if this was the same view I had seen years before. From the trailhead, the trail quickly drops down into a canyon to follow the bottom for a ways before making the climb back out again. It became clear that this was how it would go for a while. I don't remember now how much vertical the hike had but there was quite a bit of up and down going in and out of the canyons. The temperature was mild and great for hiking with some high clouds. The canyon bottoms were cool and on top the sun was warm.

Only when the route was going across the sand was a trail visible so there was massive use of cairns while on the sandstone. The park has done a good job keeping rock stacking idiots from adding to the existing cairns and creating confusion. The next was always in view so it was a matter of connecting the dots and marching on. I find hiking on the sandstone to be fun, trusting the soles of my boots to grip the course surface, which they do. The terrain was varied and interesting with amazing features and views around every corner. I did have my XT4 kit in my daypack but we were committed to our pace to reach the confluence and return in daylight so the few pictures I took along the way were with my phone. The sun was high overhead anyway so the light was bright and harsh. Nonetheless, I took a few photos as we continued out towards the rivers. One of the first, Stools, was one I literally walked into as the rock formation was framed by the dead oak. This one reminded me of photographs I took in the early '70s when I was shooting black and white film. I processed it with warm almost sepia tones. The photo to the right shows that there was some color on the oaks here and there. While taking this one, I was perched above one of the many scrambles down the face a large rock to a lower level that made us wonder how we would get back up later in the day without ropes. As we came out onto the flats, the Needles came into view for the first time.

We had only passed a few other folks while hiking, but as we neared a point where the trail crossed a jeep trail, we heard the roar of some coming our way. There is a way to jeep out to the confluence, but our jeep wouldn't have made it as the 4wd roads requires a lift and more clearance than we have on our factory set-up. We wanted to hike anyway as it offers a much more intimate experience with the landscape. The noise seemed out of place after miles of silence and as we continued, more came. When we arrived at the parking for the jeeps and the last bit of trail to the overlook, four or five jeeps were parked there. As we started towards the overlook we stopped to talk with a solo hiker who had just come from the overlook and was making his way back. He gave a tip to go a little off piste once we got there for the best view. We were glad to encounter all the rest of the folks who came in jeeps, making their way back out on the trail leaving us all alone to enjoy the view and have some lunch. I found a seat on a flat a half dozen feet from the edge, which Lisa felt uncomfortable with, so she sat a little ways away and snapped this picture of me.

I took out my phone and opened up my Viewfinder App to see how I could compose the view in front of me with the XT4. Unfortunately I didn't have a wide enough lens to get the full field of view I wanted so again I turned to the iPhone 11 with the Lightroom app to get the shot of the confluence, Colorado Green Rivers Confluence. This is definitely one I would like to reshoot with a proper camera and I have a lens in mind that'll do the trick. Some day... It is quite a breath taking view and I was happy to have some quiet time to sit and take it in.

We began on our way back after about a half an hour enjoying the view. I noted we had about 2 1/2 hours of daylight left so we set a rapid pace. The scrambles back up some of the rock faces didn't pose much trouble as we assisted each other. When we were about a mile and a half from the trailhead the light became warm and golden reflecting off the sandstone that surrounded us so I took a few more images of nice views, one that I dug out the XT4 for, Needles. The first was with the iPhone of a very nice scene that I shot in ultra wide which would have been an equivalent of about 15mm on the XT4, a lens I didn't have. Unfortunately that tiny ultra wide lens creates terrible distortion out at the edges but the image is ok to look at for the beautiful light. The next image featured in the slideshow was also captured with my phone, Window to La Sals. The last of the light, diffused by the clouds, provided just a bit of glow on the far canyon wall with the La Sals in the distance. Again I literally stepped right into this composition as this passage was on our path. The final image in the slideshow was of the Needles bathed in the diffused final light of the day. The Needles part of the park is vast and will be a destination for exploration sometime in the future.

As the light began to fade, so did Lisa's knee, and when we encountered the last couple of canyon crossings, my ability to see the cairns diminished. I don't recommend being on the move without the light to navigate these canyons when everything starts to look the same and I knew my head lamp wouldn't have helped. I encouraged Lisa to move as fast as she could while I set out ahead so I could spot the cairns while still keeping her in site. We made it but not without a few wrong turns on my part which I sorted out before she caught up. We were both glad to see the last climb out to the trailhead parking as the last of the light was gone.

The Next Morning

We awoke to a solid layer of high clouds and a small puddle of water on the floor below the refrigerator. The freezer was defrosting due to the house batteries not keeping up with the demand. The high clouds also meant that there was much diminished solar charge going into them. It was our intention to stay three nights but that wouldn't be possible now. The batteries were going on 3 1/2 years old, which for lead acid, was certainly towards the end of their usefulness. With all this in mind we decided to go back to the park for a shorter hike then leave to head home after lunch.

We consulted the map and saw a 3 mile hike up to the threshold of the Needles that sounded good to us. The physical aspect of the hike was similar to the previous day's hike, without the scrambling, but the one clear difference was the number of people there. I'm guessing the difference in the distance and the strenuous nature of the longer hike attracted more people to this shorter hike. There wasn't any particular feature that made me want to take a photograph and the sun was high and the light harsh so we enjoyed the exercise. When we arrived at the gateway, a narrow short slot that opened up into the beginning of the Needles, my phone stared buzzing with alerts as there was just a bit of a signal there. Since I was involved in some projects and having gone over two days without internet, I stayed there for about 10 minutes to let everything download and replied to a couple of emails while Lisa headed back to the trailhead. When I was done, I took off running back down the trail. I have occasionally done a bit of trail running when out hiking, but I really haven't run regularly for probably 30 years. I quickly caught up to Lisa and felt like continuing to run so we agreed to meet down towards the trailhead.

Being that close to the Needles, again inspired me to return to do a deeper excursion into them to look for subjects to photograph. Since it's only a 2 1/2 hour drive from our place I think it will happen maybe this coming spring. Hopefully I'll be able to acquire a wider lens to properly capture the more expansive views of which there are many. The vast number of hoodoos and interesting features provide endless more intimate subjects too, so I look forward to future outings there.

If you've made it this far, thank you so much for taking the time and I hope you enjoyed the read and photographs.

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