It had been 27 years since I last gazed firsthand at the towering sandstone monoliths and ramparts that define our 16th National Park, Zion. Too long. Invited by Dan Hendriksen -- a local semi-professional photographer who primarily shoots large-format (4 x 5) -- to accompany him on his yearly Fall colors trip to canyons and plateaus of the Virgin River, I jumped at the opportunity.
The weather portended to be optimal for touring and hiking (cool mornings, warm afternoons, no rain), if imperfect for shooting (we photographers love glorious, billowy clouds and indirect sunlight!). We arrived Halloween Day, after a seemingly short 4 hour drive from Salt Lake, in the mid-afternoon and immediately headed up Scenic Drive to the end of the road, at the Temple of Sinawava, and the entrance to the famed Narrows of the Virgin River. Our goal was to shoot lots of Fall foliage: the brilliant flame-reds of the slope-side maples and the shimmery, bright yellows of the river bottom cottonwoods. We got half the equation: most of the maples had already dropped their leaves and we were lefty with a smattering of burgundy here and there and many yellow plus green-to-yellow transitional cottonwoods. Dan was severely disappointed and though I knew not exactly what I was missing (I was last here in summer: the height of green), the occasional maple that had not lost all gave me a teasing taste of what it must have been like, several weeks before.
Photographers have no more control over the environment than other mortals, so we adjusted and began shooting the river as it was. The light was leaving the deepening canyon but some nice shots could still be had. With some foresight, I had brought my below-the-knee boots that I use on muddy days out at the Great Salt Lake. Wearing these boots, the water in the river was not so deep that I could not -- with some judicious foot placement -- wade into the river for a few waters' eye view photos.
With the tight canyon coils now in ever-lengthening shadow, Dan decided to take us up the Zion-Mount Carmel highway and into the light of a side ravine off that road and on the way to Checkerboard Mesa. In this cleft we found a small patch of red maples in front of an incredibly glowing, high sandstone wall. The reflected late afternoon sunlight appeared to gave the sheer, brick-red sandstone a warmth from within. Hard to capture with a camera it was a treat nonetheless to gaze at.
Easier to photograph were the few deep pools with the high sandstone buttresses still in the sun, reflecting in the dark pools. Our last photo stop of the day was off the highway and in front of the aforementioned Checkerboard Mesa. We scrambled to catch the dying light AND the rising of the almost-full moon. Though there were no clouds to give us a glorious burst of color, we committed to arriving at this spot again earlier the next night to better prepare and capture the dual beauties of sunset and moonrise.
After checking in at the Best Western Canyonlands (recommended: quiet, convenient and reasonable) and a nice Mexican dinner at Oscar's (also recommended...the flautas were quite tasty) washed down with the local suds (Zion Brewery), we were ready for a night's sleep and an early sunrise at the Towers of the Virgin.