Road Trip: Valley of the Gods National Monument, Utah

Good by ol’ desert rat, Ya half crazy wild cat. You knew where it was at, what life’s all about. Ya saver of catalogs, King of the prairie dogs, success is survival and you toughed it out, You toughed it out.

~ Desert Rat ~
(lyrics by Michael Martin Murphy)

Valley of the Gods National Monument, Utah (2016)
Valley of the Gods National Monument, Utah (2016). Nikon F6 + AF-S NIKKOR 17-35mm 1:2.8D ED + Ilford PanF50+ at ISO50. Developed in Ilford DDX @ 1:4 for 8 minutes. Scanned with Nikon Super CoolScan 5000ED.

She sits on the front porch
(Of) the old house that stands scorched
Under the sun stroke of a desert day that chocked
Her old man who fell in the sun.

Valley of the Gods National Monument, Utah 92016)
Valley of the Gods National Monument, Utah (2016). Nikon F6 + AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm 1:2.8G ED + Green filter + Ilford PanF50+ at ISO125. Developed in Ilford DDX @ 1:4 for 8 minutes. Scanned with Nikon Super CoolScan 5000ED. /em>

With rattle snakes and keep sakes
Old boxes of Corn Flakes
Grammar phones and gem stones
And three unclaimed door frames
And bleached bones and rocks by the ton.

Valley of the Gods National Monument, Utah
Valley of the Gods National Monument, Utah (2016). Nikon F6 + AF-S NIKKOR 28-70mm 1:2.8D ED + Ilford PanF50+ at ISO50. Developed in Ilford DDX @ 1:4 for 8 minutes. Scanned with Nikon Super CoolScan 5000ED.

Good by ol’ desert rat
Ya half crazy wild cat
You knew where it was at
What life’s all about.

Valley of the Gods National Monument, Utah
Valley of the Gods National Monument, Utah (2016). Nikon F6 + AF-S NIKKOR 28-70mm 1:2.8D ED + Ilford PanF50+ at ISO50. Developed in Ilford DDX @ 1:4 for 8 minutes. Scanned with Nikon Super CoolScan 5000ED. Color in the top 4 images is not a faux sepia tone – it’s what happens when the scanning software scans black and white films as color. My fixer was getting a little old so there’s a slight cast to the negatives. I left it for these top images thinking it added something to the overall feel.

Ya saver of catalogs, king of the prairie dogs
Success is survival and you toughed it out,
You toughed it out.

Old Bridge and San Juan River, Mexican Hat, Utah (2016)
Old Bridge and San Juan River, Mexican Hat, Utah (2016). Nikon F6 + AF-S NIKKOR 28-70mm 1:2.8D ED + Ilford FP4+ at ISO125. Developed in Ilford DDX @ 1:4 for 10 minutes. Scanned with Nikon Super CoolScan 5000ED.

The old loud mouth rock hound
He kept the kids spellbound
Half crazy and sun baked
Ya eared your own grubstake
By breakin’ your back all day long

San Juan Trading Post, Mexican Hat, Utah (2016)
San Juan Trading Post, Mexican Hat, Utah (2016). Nikon F6 + AF-S NIKKOR 28-70mm 1:2.8D ED + Ilford FP4+ at ISO125. Developed in Ilford DDX @ 1:4 for 10 minutes. Scanned with Nikon Super CoolScan 5000ED.

With junk art and dunk carts
Old Model T parts, frustrated, outdated and uneducated
At eighty you still wrote good songs.

Montezuma Creek, Utah 92016)
Montezuma Creek, Utah (2016). Niikon F6 + AF-S NIKKOR 28-70mm 1:2.8D ED + Ilford FP4+ at ISO125. Developed in Ilford DDX @ 1:4 for 10 minutes. Scanned with Nikon Super CoolScan 5000ED.

So goodbye of Ol’ Desert Rat
Ya half crazy wild cat
You knew where it was at
What life’s all about.

San Juan Trading Post, Mexican Hat, Utah (2016)
San Juan Trading Post, Mexican Hat, Utah (2016). Nikon F6 + AF-S NIKKOR 28-70mm 1:2.8D ED + Ilford FP4+ at ISO125. Developed in Ilford DDX @ 1:4 for 8 minutes. Scanned with Nikon Super CoolScan 5000ED.

All ya savers of “Whole Earth” catalogs
Kings of the prairie dogs
Success is survival
We’ll all tough it out

San Juan Trading Post, Mexican Hat, Utah (2016)
San Juan Trading Post, Mexican Hat, Utah (2016). Nikon F6 + AF-S NIKKOR 28-70mm 1:2.8D ED + Ilford FP4+ at ISO125. Developed in Ilford DDX @ 1:4 for 10 minutes Scanned with Nikon Super CoolScan 5000ED.

Yes, we’ll all tough it out.

Old Bridge Bar and Grille, Mexican Hat, Utah
Old Bridge Bar and Grille, Mexican Hat, Utah. iPhone 6 panorama.
This map shows the entire route. Photographs on this page were made within the white circle.
This map shows the route of our fall trip. The photographs on this page were made within the white circle. Google maps.

Grand Staircase, Escalante National Monument, Utah

I first visited the northern region of the Escalante Staircase area years ago after reading an article on the Burr Trail -but that’s another story. More recently (back in 2007) I hit it from the south, having come up one night from Flagstaff and checked into a hotel in Page, Arizona just off Hwy 89. There was a large canvas hanging on the wall of the lobby and I asked the woman behind the desk where it was from. “Just up the road,” she said, “about 20 miles. It’s not marked or anything, you just pull over the start walking.” So that next day we did just that and what do you know – we found it.

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument signage along Hwy 89 North out of Page, Arizona.
Small, un-obvious ‘Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument’ sign marking the trail head along Hwy 89 North out of Page, Arizona.

This past trip to Page we thought we’d try to find it again. One late afternoon we set out armed with just a memory and full tank of gas. Soon the land began to change into what I vaguely remembered from 10 years prior and I was hopeful. Then, there on the right hand side of the road was the parking area and it all came back to me. It’s more developed now; a half dozen cars at the trail head and a sign informing would-be hikers what they’re about to see. It’s the Grand Staircase, part of the enormous Escalante National Monument.

Different than a National Park, National Monuments have different structures, different protocols. The Escalante National Monument is a truly vast, wild expanse of land sweeping through central Utah. There’s no single entry point per say, but numerous portals from which to enter. Camping is allowed and exploration is encouraged. It is a able-bodied photographer’s dream come true.

Toad Stools, Grand Staircase, Escalante National Monument, Utah. This was the obvious shot presented at the approach to the area. Light was hitting it beautifully and the features were prominently and nicely presented. I walked by it at first knowing I’d return. Thankfully I did return before the shadows at bottom left of the frame swallowed up the grass – which I thought was a quite beautiful green to compliment the rest of the scene’s earthen colors. Nikon F6 + AF-S NIKKOR 17-35mm 1:2.8D + Velvia 50

 

Grand Staircase, Escalante National Monument, Utah (2016). The “staircase” feature of the Escalante Staircase is series of risers, or elevated plateau regions ranging from the Grand Canyon way south in Arizona to the the 9,000′ edge of Utah’s high plateaus. The ‘steps’ include prominent geologic regions such as Shinarump Cliffs, the Vermilion Cliffs, the White Cliffs, the Gray Cliffs, and the Pink Cliffs. In this shot you can see some of that transition, showing the comparatively whitish layers between the Carmel Formation (in shadow) and the Entrada Sandstone layer ignited by the setting sun. Nikon F6 + AF-S NIKKOR 17-35mm 1:2.8D + Velvia 50.
Toad Stools, Grand Staircase, Escalante National Monument, Utah.
Toad Stools, Grand Staircase, Escalante National Monument, Utah. Much of the area seems to be in some transition between dirt and rock. Cryptobiotic soil (organic matter that takes many years to grow) is everywhere. Sadly, boot prints trample these hearty organisms constantly, forcing them to start the regeneration process over regularly.

So what does this have to do with the F6? Nothing, really – other than it’s just another place it was with me to record. Ten years ago before purchasing the F6 I was shooting a D2oo. The difference between the two cameras is startling. My friend Dan looked through the F6’s super bright, clear viewfinder and – in comparison to the D750 he was shooting – commented how he wished the D750 had that viewfinder. Funny how we grow accustomed to things and can take them for granted. The viewfinder is one of the features of the F6 I’ve come to rely on most. I’m  actually able to see well enough for tasks such as manually focusing and low-light shooting. And compared to the F5, because the focus points light up in red instead of remaining a monotone gray when activated makes everything easier and less distracting when shooting. Yet another reason to love the F6.

To read more about Utah’s Escalante National Monument and Grand Staircase, visit the VisitUtah web site.

In 2007 we called this area “Rim Rocks.” I’m not sure why, or where the name came from. Now it’s part of the Escalante National Monument’s Grand Staircase area. Nikon D200.

Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness, New Mexico (2016)

One of the things I’ve looked forward to each year since – forever – is my fall trip. This year it was down to the Four Corners area of the US and covered territory in New Mexico, Arizona, Utah then back in Colorado. We visited a handful of awe-inspiring destinations – some for the first time, others back for another go.

Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness, New Mexico
Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness, New Mexico

You can do your best to plan a trip well but at the end of the day the ability to roll with whatever is presented yields a better overall experience. Weather, light, crowds and other unforeseen circumstances like car trouble can either crater your objective – or – present opportunities to rise and meet challenges.

When it comes to putting time, money and energy into visiting a specific place with specific goals, there’s one clear choice for me and that’s the F6. In the past I’ve shot a good bit of color at some of these destinations. This year I felt like switching it up a bit and decided to shoot black and white film between rolls of Velvia. Velvia is great stuff – but bright, sun-lit days are not what I’d consider  ideal conditions to get the most from it, even with a warming filter.

Alamo Wash, Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness, New Mexio (2016)
Alamo Wash, Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness, New Mexio (2016)

The first destination on our stop was the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness in north western New Mexico. There are two primary washes, or drainages in the Bisti; a north and a south. The northern wash is referred to as Hunter Wash, the southern as the Gateway or Alamo Wash. The main, visible (but primitive) parking area is adjacent to the southern wash. The northern wash takes a little route finding to access but nothing too arduous. Both are fascinating and provide explorers plenty to see with minimal elevation gain. The area is pretty flat – which is a new (and welcome) difference compared to so many other areas requiring a lot of strenuous climbing. It’s almost as if you’re simply going for a walk once you cross the Wilderness Area boundary. To scamper up the hills and ravines is a relatively easy task.

One of the things I realized in my research of the area was how difficult it was to attain a sense of scale while viewing images. I’d see a geological feature and wonder if it were 10 feet tall or a hundred. I’ll leave the mystery to you as well as you view the images. I will say that despite ominous warnings and perceptions that accompany such a remote, designated wilderness such as the Bisti I was pleasantly surprised how accessible and friendly it felt.

 

Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness, Hunter Wash, New Mexico (2016)
Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness, Hunter Wash, New Mexico (2016)

The general layout of the area is these large primary washes run southwest, with many of the interesting features residing in the off-shoot canyons and drainages feeding the main washes. We were a little nervous about getting lost, having read several accounts of people doing so resulting in cold nights spent in the badlands. I found, however, that with basic navigation and orienteering skills getting lost wouldn’t be a problem. We did use the GPS feature of our iPhones as a back up. There’s no cell signal but the GPS functionality of the device works perfectly without it. Yet another reason to love smart phones.

Alamo Wash, Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness, New Mexio (2016)
Alamo Wash, Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness, New Mexio (2016)

It was cold that first night and the next morning before dawn we woke at 5am, donned head lamps and headed into the unknown Alamo Wash in the dark looking for a good place to catch first light. The light is the most difficult part of visiting the Bisti, or other badlands areas blessed (?) with so much sun. Harsh bright light and harsh shadows have the photographer praying for cloud cover. Alas – sometimes there’s simply none to be found.

Alamo Wash, Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness, New Mexio (2016)
Alamo Wash, Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness, New Mexio (2016)

There were nearly a dozen cars at the trail head by the time we returned from the morning hike. After grabbing a quick bite and watering up we headed into the northern wash searching for the Wings. More to come…

Post Scrip: after this first trip I found a great weather resource that will help plan additional trips. The Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness is a unique and special place worthy of more time and attention.