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Trip Report: Utah Photography in the Fall (2023)

Updated: May 17

A cold but productive week visiting Utah to seek out lingering fall color

If you missed the trip reports for my 2023 winter trip to southern Utah, you can catch up via the following link: 2023 Utah Winter Trip Reports

If you read my giant six-part trip report for my winter trip and found it a bit exhausting, you're not alone: it was exhausting to write it all, too! Although I did enjoy the process of going through my phone snaps and experiences again, it ended up being a much larger endeavor than I anticipated when I first decided to start a trip report series.

Accordingly, below you'll find a more summarized accounting of my fall photography trip to Utah. In addition to wanting to keep this latest report much briefer, I also put a lot of focus on recording video during this trip which, somewhat ironically, resulted in the taking of far fewer behind-the-scenes photos. In another change from the March 2023 trip report series, I've included several of my work-in-progress photos from Utah throughout this post, instead of solely sharing phone snaps or the unedited raw images from my cameras.

Now Available: Autumnal Wonder (free ebook)

May 2024 Update: It took longer than anticipated due to a family emergency in early spring, but I'm excited to share that my ebook for this trip, Autumnal Wonder, is now available. Consisting of nearly 40 new photos, plus an introductory essay in which I discuss the reasons behind my pursuit of photography (and how recent events have forced me to reconsider some of those reasons going forward), I'd love for you to download a copy for your enjoyment. Download your free copy here


Related Videos

Or, if you're ambitious, marathon them all back-to-back via my Utah playlist! To enjoy these videos without interruptions from ads, become a member of my Patreon!


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When Can I Exit this Rollercoaster?

I was not supposed to be back in Utah so soon, but as the past couple of years have proven time and time again, life had other plans. Having looked forward to a return to Colorado for fall colors for the first time since 2020, about a week before I was due to leave, I noticed a tickle in the back of my throat.

You may already know where this is heading...

Two days later, feeling like death and running a fever, I tested positive for COVID. Of course! My hopes for a mild case were quickly dashed as my symptoms worsened. Paxlovid helped, but not quickly enough by any stretch of the imagination to keep my plans for heading to Colorado.

I was extremely disappointed to miss out on Colorado, especially as I had hoped to meet up with several other photographers while there. On the other hand, I had done a fair bit of planning for a November fall trip to Utah in 2022, so it was pretty easy to pivot and shift to that as a backup plan. It also offered a second chance, as I'd been forced to cancel that trip when our dog needed surgery for a cancerous mass we found on her leg.

The disappointment over Colorado soon turned to anticipation for fulfilling my plans for a November photography trip to southern Utah, and with a great level of excitement I found myself once again setting out on the long drive from north Texas. The only remaining unknown at that point was my health, having just started a new treatment for my Crohn's disease shortly before I hit the road. Once again, I was heading into a big trip without the physical fitness I would have liked; I hadn't been feeling the greatest in general for several months.

Fortunately, the trip went fairly well, and I came home with a large cache of new photos to review and process.


Suggested Content

If you enjoy these looks behind the scenes of my photography trips, you may also like my in-field videos I've started to produce. Head to my in-field playlist on my YouTube channel to check them out. Here's one I produced recently while photographing fall colors at my local park:


Day One: Into the Great Unknown

Episode one of the video series for this trip is now live! Watch it here or click on the thumbnail below. You can also enjoy this video ad-free by becoming a member of my Patreon.

Although I had done a decent amount of research ahead of the cancelled November 2022 trip, nothing I found - nor anyone I asked - could provide a consistent answer on when the best time is for fall colors in southern Utah, including the broader Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument area. I asked a handful of photographers that either live in or frequently visit the region, and I received a handful of answers that ranged from my planned dates being too early, too late, or just right.

I therefore found myself arriving in Utah not really knowing what I was going to encounter.

Fall colors in Colorado and elsewhere were later than usual in 2023 but, ultimately, my fate was dependent upon how cold it had been getting at night and how windy it had been in the days leading up to my arrival.

Making the drive from my motel in Page, Arizona to the start of Cottonwood Canyon Road in Utah, I had little to go on: I think there are about 20 trees along Highway 89 throughout that stretch. In one copse of trees, however, there was some nice color, so I at least had a little bit of hope as I turned off the highway and onto the roughly maintained Bureau of Land Management (BLM) road.

The landscape along the first little bit of the road is largely devoid of trees, but once I got into the lusher areas along the Paria River and Cottonwood Creek I was treated to almost exactly what I'd been hoping for since my first visit the year before: vibrant, golden cottonwoods.

Golden cottonwood trees along Cottonwood Canyon Rd in Utah
Bad mid-morning light, but there's gold in those distant trees!

Not everything was crowned in gold but, until getting farther north, the fall foliage was pretty darn good. Given the light wasn't particularly good for photography, I only stopped to make a few photos as I continued along the unpaved road for a while until I came to the southern Cottonwood Narrows trailhead. I'd hiked part of the canyon in 2022, once from the southern trailhead and once from the northern, but I didn't complete the entire hike from one to the other.

A dead cottonwood tree set against a backdrop of golden leaves along Cottonwood Canyon Road in southern Utah
Stripped Bare: one of only a handful of photos I made on the first day of my trip

The entrance to Cottonwood Narrows from the south trailhead
Heading into the canyon from the south trailhead for Cottonwood Narrows.

There aren't a ton of trees within the canyon, so I had little expectation of finding fall foliage. I also wasn't expecting to find the trail surrounded by such an abundance of ground cover: a couple of the spots I stood in the prior year to make some compositions were completely overgrown with tall flowering shrubs and grasses. What a difference a record-breaking winter of snow can make!

Flowering shrubs along Cottonwood Narrows trail in southern Utah
I was totally unprepared for the abundance of beautiful flowering shrubs along the trail.

I hiked roughly half the trail between the two entry points. With the thin, high clouds drifting overhead there was no opportunity for the beautiful, reflected light I had hoped for, so I decided to continue on along Cottonwood Canyon Road to Highway 12, and then head further north to scout along Burr Trail. The soft light continued - reflected light is almost a must for the area I like to photograph there - so I just made a couple quick stops before heading back south to snag a campsite on BLM land along Highway 12.

Cottonwood trees at the mouth of Singing Canyon in Utah
I revisited Transcendent Glow, hoping for some fall colors; if anything, I was a bit early for that.


Day Two: Putting in the Work

Episode two of the video series for this trip is now live! Watch it here or click on the thumbnail below. You can also enjoy this video ad-free by becoming a member of my Patreon.

I went to bed at the end of that first day excited to get an early start the next morning with my newfound knowledge of what conditions were like throughout the areas I had scouted. Having camped just off Highway 12 near Calf Creek, I was well positioned for what I hoped would be some compositions with strong potential just a short walk or drive from my campsite.

Unfortunately, clouds were still lingering, making the light challenging for pulling out the vibrance of the golden cottonwood trees I was targeting.

Thankfully, the clouds cleared out a bit as the morning wore on, allowing for intermittent periods of full sunlight on the trees. I'm not fully sold on the initial compositions I tried, partly due to the softer light early on and partly due to the lay of the land not working out as I'd hoped from a light and shadow standpoint, but after a short 30 second drive further along Highway 12 I set up shop for some photos I first envisioned during my trip to the area in March of 2022.

Golden cottonwood trees along Highway 12 in Utah
My scouting phone snap of one of the first compositions I tried to work during the early hours of day two. The light was never as strong as I needed, and the landscape didn't stay in shadow behind the trees as I'd hoped it would.

Looking down at Calf Creek along Highway 12 in Utah
Waiting for stronger light on what would end up being one of my favorite compositions of the trip.

As I noted above, I was working along a stretch of Highway 12 that loosely follows Calf Creek. Not far from where I camped is a pull-out that overlooks the creek where it cuts into a deeper portion of its canyon, somewhat near the Upper Calf Creek Falls trailhead. The creek is heavily lined with cottonwood trees and with the tall canyon walls, I knew there'd likely be some interesting play of light and shadow.

Cottonwood trees along Calf Creek in southern Utah
I loved this collection of trees in this bowl shaped portion of the canyon, anchored by the old, large cottonwood tree on the right.

The natural reaction of many photographers may have been to wish that there were more leaves left on the trees, but I tend to prefer more sparse conditions like this in many cases. It helps provide more contrast and interest as you can see the structures of the trees that would otherwise be hidden.

Golden fall colors along Calf Creek, as seen from Highway 12 in southern Utah
Shadow Dance: One of the last photos I made before the late-morning light became too harsh.

I hung around for quite a while, waiting for the light and working some other scenes on both sides of the highway with my secondary camera. By midmorning, as the rising sun became a bit too harsh for the location, I packed up my gear and started on my way back to Burr Trail. With the clearing sky, I knew I would be able to find reflected light throughout Long Canyon... assuming the clouds didn't roll back in.

Fortunately, they did not.

Side note: From here on, I don't have many behind-the-scenes phone shots to share (I do have quite a bit of video, which will be released over on my in-field playlist on YouTube). Shooting all the video apparently distracted me from documenting my outings via phone snapshots.

I started off back at the location where I made Transcendent Glow, in a small side canyon. My plan was to try to retake the same composition with some early fall color in the trees, but the path of the winter sun never aligned properly - at least while I was there - to reproduce the stunning light at the mouth of the canyon. There was still some good light, though, and I spent quite a bit of time trying out different compositions that featured sun-kissed trees against the canyon walls or that were focused on smaller scenes centered around fallen leaves.

A golden tree growing on the wall of Singing Canyon along Burr Trail in Utah
Life's Edge: This small tree growing out of the canyon wall was just catching reflected light on the edge of shadow further back in the narrow confines.

Although the winter sun didn't cooperate with my original idea, it kindly brought to life the larger canyon through which Burr Trail travels as angled light began bouncing off the walls by early afternoon. I spent the better part of two hours driving and walking along the trail, working with the reflected light. Most of the deciduous trees were already bare, but I did find a few trees with lingering color; otherwise, I primarily sought out interesting details in the canyon walls, often combined with nicely placed evergreen trees or bushes.

Brilliant light in Long Canyon along Burr Trail in southern Utah
Penultimate Light: I made this photo just before the late-afternoon sun slid behind the opposing canyon wall.

As the sun slid towards the heights of the surrounding canyon walls, my day was capped off by some brilliant light and shadow, which I scrambled to take full advantage of before it faded away.


Day Three: An Interlude

Episode three of the video series for this trip is now live! Watch it here or click on the thumbnail below. You can also enjoy this video ad-free by becoming a member of my Patreon.

Having woken up with one of my patented Wonky Neck Headaches, I was not feeling terribly motivated for the day after sleeping in a little bit. After a dose of Aleve and a hearty breakfast I started feeling a bit better, but decided to take it easy as I was still feeling run down between the headache and not really giving myself a chance to recuperate from the long drive from Texas.

I headed back down Highway 12 - literally down, to where the Escalante River intersects the highway - to check out a trailhead along the river where I had hoped to find some lingering color on the trees. Unfortunately, that didn't work out and the location wasn't particularly inspiring without foliage.

Golden cottonwood trees along Utah Highway 12
Highway 12 Splendor: I normally go out of my way to avoid having human elements in-frame, but the cluster of golden trees below compelled me to stop and make this photo of Highway 12 winding its way through the canyon below.

I needed to restock on water and some food, and gas up the truck, so I headed into the town of Escalante for lunch and to back up my camera files to my laptop. I ended up hanging out at Escalante Outfitters - who happen to have great pizza and sandwiches available at the attached cafe - for a couple hours as I began to review and rate my image files.

After that relaxing interlude, I decided to aim to camp that night somewhere along Cottonwood Canyon Road. I actually stopped to make several photos along the way, but they were fairly half-hearted attempts to capture some of the interesting vistas found throughout the northern portion of the drive. I had basically thrown in the towel on the day and was basically just taking photos for the hell of it.

Until, that is, I got into the area where I was hoping to find an available campsite.

There was little light to work with, but just enough to give a soft glow to the golden foliage against the subtle blues of the surrounding landscape as the shadows of early dusk settled in. Although I was working from the tripod, there was enough wind that I was forced to shoot at fairly high ISOs (1600 to 3200) to get my shutter speeds fast enough to freeze the blowing leaves and avoid camera shake; I resorted to shooting handheld when the wind was most persistent. Thankfully, the resulting noisy files were easily cleaned up by Adobe's AI-powered noise reduction in Lightroom Classic.

A large golden cottonwood tree with fall foliage in the foreground along Cottonwood Canyon Road in Utah
The Storyteller: The day was redeemed as I made one of my favorite photos of the trip as I searched for a campsite for the night.

Even though the day had been a bit of a dud from the get-go, it ended on a high note. I found a great campsite, too!


Day Four: Curse You, Wind!

Episode four of the video series for this trip is now live! Watch it here or click on the thumbnail below. You can also enjoy this video ad-free by becoming a member of my Patreon.

After a restless night, I still (thankfully) woke up feeling pretty good... far better than the day before when I had to fight off the migraine. Aside from brewing my required cup of hot tea, I skipped a warm breakfast so I could start exploring my surroundings while the light was still soft.

It had been fairly windy overnight, with falling leaves tap-tapping onto the roof of the 4Runner, and that continued into the day. After making some photos just steps from where I slept, I headed south on Cottonwood Canyon Road to continue looking for compositions that would take advantage of the golden leaves in the soft morning light.

Fortunately, although the wind was problematic, it wasn't constant. That was especially important as several of the scenes I found required the use of the 100-400mm lens coupled with focus stacking due to depth of field challenges.

Side note: if that prior sentence is mostly gibberish to you, it simply means I was shooting subjects well in the distance with foregrounds that were closer to the camera, presenting challenges to get everything in focus in a single frame. So, one simply takes multiple shots, focusing throughout the scene, and the files can then be combined via software to get the needed sharpness from front to back. In such scenarios, wind presents an added challenge as moving elements - such as branches and foliage - make getting a good set of focus stack frames much more difficult.

An old, twisted cottonwood tree in fall along Cottonwood Canyon Road in Utah
Morning Caress: Even though the light was still soft, there was enough glow in the sky to caress the golden leaves and bring scenes like this to life.

Speaking of foliage, that also presented its own set of challenges: the grasses and bushes growing along the shoulders of the road were so tall and dense - or full of very sharp stickers - that my opportunities were limited for pulling over and setting up to make photos of many of the scenes that caught my eye as I drove along the rough BLM road.

But what I was able to compose for, was pretty darn spectacular!

Aside from when I was taking focus stack series, I found myself shooting primarily handheld again as the wind was too constant once the sun rose to allow for much use of the 100-400mm lens on the tripod. It was a bit frustrating at times, but far less so than it would have been just a few years ago when we didn't have as many great solutions for cleaning up noisy files (since I was using mostly longer focal lengths, I was still having to raise the ISO a fair bit, especially in the early morning, late afternoon and evening).

As the sun rose higher, I shifted gears a bit, looking for ways to leverage light that many photographers would shun (as I once did). While it's certainly true that not every type of light can bring about pleasing results, there are often opportunities available at any time of day. In my case, I felt the light was still soft enough to allow for some high-key photography work.

Golden cottonwoods along Cottonwood Canyon Road in Utah
Going It Alone: This example of a "mild" high-key approach to late-morning light is from a series of photos I made that are some of my favorites from the entire trip.

After wrapping up my morning shooting, I decided to head back to Cottonwood Narrows to take advantage of the clear sky overhead, which meant there would be ample opportunity for nice, reflected light within the narrower canyon. The wind managed to follow me into the canyon, but I was still able to get several photos I was quite happy with, all aided by the expected reflected light I found.

I even stumbled across every nature photographer's dream: mud cracks!

Fallen leaves and mud cracks in Cottonwood Narrows in southern Utah
Remnants: A nice combination of textures between fallen leaves and dried mud, all lit by soft reflected light from the canyon walls.

After hiking the entirety of the canyon from the north trailhead to the south, and back, I was pretty beat, and looking forward to a recovery lunch at the trailhead before moving on back south for the afternoon and on into sunset.

As I was about halfway through my sandwich, however, an SUV came down the steep hill near the trailhead pulled into the small parking area with a hissing tire. Given the remote location and lack of cell coverage, I offered help - especially when we couldn't find the spare tire in his rental - and ended up driving him a quite a ways south until he got enough cell signal to call the rental company.

It would have taken hours for a tow truck to come and get him; fortunately, the rental company was able to point us to a YouTube video that showed how to dig our way into the back of the SUV to get to the spare (both our Man Cards should probably be revoked for not figuring it out on our own... but it was also a stupid design!). After swapping the spare on for him, I followed him all the way back to Highway 89 as I was worried about the donut tire holding up on the rough road that's often littered with sharp rocks (as he had already discovered).

Michael Rung as part of the Matt's Offroad Recovery crew
Someone on the Landscape Photographers Worldwide Discord server had a little fun after I shared the story about helping out a stranded photographer.

Sadly, that little side quest resulted in me missing most of the fantastic late-afternoon light on the cottonwoods that I had been pining to photograph, but doing a good deed made up for that loss. And I was still able to squeeze in some photography as I made my way back towards the campsite I had in mind for the night.

Falling rain illuminated by the setting sun along Cottonwood Canyon Road in Utah
Skyfall: This one doesn't really fit in with the other photos from the trip, but it was a favorite moment, witnessed as I traversed back north along Cottonwood Canyon Rd. after following my new friend out to the highway.

After the prior day, which was a fair letdown until the later part, this fourth day was hugely productive (even with the unexpected interruption). I captured over 300 frames (far fewer compositions, given I was frequently shooting in bursts due to the wind), and have nearly 20 images that are likely destined for my portfolio once it's finalized.

Not a bad day at all!


Day Five: Frozen Feet & Golden Light

Episode five of the video series for this trip is now live! Watch it here or click on the thumbnail below. You can also enjoy this video ad-free by becoming a member of my Patreon.

After sleeping in late - I was going almost non-stop from 6am to bedtime the day before - I had another side quest to stock up on water and food. I had planned to just stop at a gas station/minimart back along Highway 89, but I couldn't bring myself to pay the fifty cent per gallon premium for gas at the remote stations, so I drove all the way back to Page, Arizona, where I had started the trip.

Coming back to Cottonwood Canyon Road in the early afternoon, I expected to make a quick stop at Lower Hackberry Canyon just to scout it out a bit for the next day, or a future trip. Instead, I ended up exploring over a mile into the canyon - I'm not exactly sure as my GPS tracking went wild within the deep canyon itself - making several photos that will definitely end up in my final collection.

Since I stayed in the canyon so long, I didn't make it out in time to get the late afternoon combination of light and shadow in the river valley that I'd been excited about since the first day (I was also exhausted), but I had little reason for complaint as the canyon was absolutely fantastic.

Fall color in Lower Hackberry Canyon in southern Utah
Bounty of Light: I hadn't even made it into the canyon when I came across this scene, and I had to stop to make a photo.

For once, I was smart enough to grab my neoprene water socks out of the 4Runner storage and throw them in my backpack, although I wasn't smart enough to actually put them on until my socks were thoroughly soaked from trudging through the ice-cold stream that was running through the canyon. In a dumber move, I had left my Teva sandals back in Texas, so my hiking boots were also completely sodden and caked with mud (it's always fun having an extra pound or two attached to your feet as you hike).

But the frozen feet and exhausted legs were worth it!

I wasn't feeling particularly energetic when I started the hike into the canyon but, as so often happens when I'm out with the camera, once I came across the first scene that captured my imagination and I got the first photo of the day under my belt, I quickly became reenergized.

What had started out as a quick scouting visit turned into three hours of joyful exploration and photography.

(aside from my boots freezing solid overnight...)


Closing Thoughts

As I got settled into camp for dinner and then bed at the end of that fifth day, I was feeling content with what I had accomplished throughout the trip to that point. I was also feeling quite worn down after back-to-back days of hiking, coupled with my lack of physical fitness after several months of low activity due to fatigue related to my Crohn's disease, which had once again fallen out of remission over the summer.

I was feeling hopeful but also a bit anxious for this trip as I had started the new medication shortly beforehand: just enough time had passed to start feeling better and less fatigued, yet it was far from enough time to have had an opportunity to significantly improve my fitness level after the months of inactivity.

Looking back as I write these closing words, I wish I had stayed along Cottonwood Canyon Road one more day, but I also know I likely did the right thing by listening to my body and not pushing myself too hard. There's always next time, and I still had a highly productive trip. I expect I'll be adding roughly 40 new photos to my portfolio, which would take me to more than 125 images from just three visits to the southern part of the state.

Speaking of next time, as I made the long drive back to north Texas, I felt certain that I was ready to take a break from Utah for a while. Three trips in just over 18 months felt like a lot, even though they were all great, not only for the experiences and explorations, but also the results I achieved with the camera. I've also been itching to return to other locations, such as Grand Teton National Park or Yosemite, and I want to make up for the cancelled fall trip to Colorado; I can only make so many long road trips each year (and each season).

Not surprisingly, however, I find myself already pining to head back to southern Utah as I've worked on writing this trip report less than two months after returning home. Utah provides seemingly endless opportunities to find surprise and delight, and I'm definitely in love with its rugged beauty and the ease with which one can feel totally isolated in its vast landscapes.

I don't expect to return in 2024 as I already have a couple planned trips elsewhere for March and April, but don't be too surprised if I'm back exploring canyons and badlands early in 2025.

Last but not least, be sure to subscribe to my YouTube channel and turn on notifications so you can catch the videos from this trip as I release them in the near future.


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