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Utah Trip Report: Day Five / Highway 12 & Burr Trail Photography

Updated: Sep 5, 2023

A fantastic sunrise to sunset day in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Capitol Reef National Park



If you missed the previous reports from this trip to southern Utah, you can catch up via the following links:



For those of you that read my prior entries in this series as they were published, I apologize for the two-month hiatus. Other priorities required my attention for a bit.



For my first day away from Bryce Canyon National Park, I awoke to a depressingly drab morning, finding a light dusting of snow and sleet on the ground and my 4Runner, and not a hint of sunlight. Regardless, I got up, made some hot tea, and went for a meandering wander near camp, trying to just enjoy my surroundings.


I was soon treated to amazing conditions as the sun suddenly broke through rapidly drifting clouds.


The day just kept getting better from there. I have a lot to share for day five, so grab a tasty beverage, get comfortable, and enjoy!


 

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Let There be Light!


The morning certainly seemed to be lost when I took down my window shade and peered outside: I could barely see the valley below my campsite, and the light was absolutely flat. Just about as bad as it can get for a location that is best known for its many epic views of the surrounding landscape.


Snow and fog while camping along Utah Highway 12
A disappointing sight to wake to...

Toyota 4Runner covered in snow at a campsite along Utah Highway 12
I should have removed the window screen from the back door: thankfully, the window was closed, at least!

Fortunately, as teased in the intro above, things would quickly turn for the better. As I wandered around my campsite and the surrounding area, searching for any kind of compositions that may have worked with the conditions, I was not of a very positive mindset. Sipping my morning tea, I tried out a few test shots with my phone and eventually decided to head back to the truck to get my camera, although with little hope of making an interesting photo with it.


Snow covered tree in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
Test composition: a desperate mess that needed more snow and/or more interest in the sky.

Valley overlook along Highway 12 in Utah
Test composition: a little better, but still far from great due to the lack of light.

Rocky outcropping in Grand Staircase-Escalante
Test composition: at this point, I decided to head back to the truck and grab my camera. I believe I was considering a black and white shot, but it was with rather misguided hope of producing anything decent.


And then, suddenly... sunlight!


Overlooking Grand Staircase-Escalante near Highway 12
After 15-20 minutes of moping around with my camera, the conditions did a complete 180.

Fortunately, the 24-105mm lens I'd brought with me for my wandering covered the focal range I needed for what was to come. Also fortunately, there was enough light that I was able to easily shoot handheld as I'd left my tripod in the truck and didn't want to risk missing the light by running back to grab it. I was only 30-60 seconds away, but I was worried the sun would disappear as quickly as it had appeared.


I fired off around 60 frames in a half hour window

From the moment there was the first hint of sunlight breaking through the low clouds to the point where I felt the best conditions had passed, only half an hour had gone by. Shooting handheld is always a great way to get the creative juices flowing again as I can rapidly move, shoot, and move again. I fired off around 60 frames in that half hour window but, reviewing the files, I ended up with only three to four compositions that are candidates for editing. Such is often the way of things when shooting fast and just instinctually reacting to your surroundings.


A collage of photos from along Highway 12 in Utah
Raw files made around my campsite (compare the upper left photo to the phone snap I shared above to see how things changed; lower left photo has already been edited).

Even though the light had grown a bit too harsh by this point, I knew it was likely that there may be further opportunities out along Utah Highway 12 as the low clouds moved through the surrounding area. I quickly got the rest of the window covers removed from the truck and left the campsite, heading for an overlook along the highway that wasn't too far away.


Cows on BLM land in Grand Staircase-Escalante
One downside to camping on BLM land: bovine speed traps. I had to (anxiously) wait for a few cows to clear the road on my way back to Hwy 12.


Chasing Conditions Along Highway 12


Arriving at the viewpoint, I wasn't too sure my luck for the rest of the morning would hold out. There were low clouds streaming along distant ridgelines and mountains, but the sky was clearing rapidly overhead and most of the interest, if any, appeared to be well in the distance.


Here's a quick panning video I took when I arrived at the overlook:




I broke out the 100-400mm lens to try to grab some frames of the distant clouds over the landscape, but I'm not convinced they're worthy of consideration for editing. I'll likely see what I can do with a black and white take on at least one of them to see if I can tease out some dramatic contrast with the more aggressive approach I'm willing to take when stepping away from my color work.


Photos from Head of the Rocks Overlook along Highway 12 in Utah
A few frames made with the 100-400 lens, and a wider shot that is, admittedly, more of a simple travel snapshot.

Abandoning the overlook, I decided to just keep going northeast on Highway 12. My friend Jon and I had followed it a way in 2022 when I thought I was being clever by heading to a campsite to the north (forgetting about the elevation change and, therefore, finding the site inaccessible due to snow), but we turned around well before reaching its endpoint in Torrey, Utah.


much of what I was "seeing" required the use of my 100-400 lens

I stopped at a few spots along the way as the road wound its way up and down and around (if you've driven Hwy 12, you probably know the area I'm talking about). I didn't take many phone shots as much of what I was "seeing" required the use of my 100-400 lens again, which the phone's camera doesn't do much justice. I was also battling pretty strong wind gusts at some of the locations where I stopped, requiring my full attention to hitting the shutter button during brief moments of calm.


Here are several unedited frames I captured along the way:


Views along Utah Hwy 12
Views along Utah Hwy 12 #1

Views along Utah Hwy 12
Views along Utah Hwy 12 #2

Views along Utah Hwy 12
Views along Utah Hwy 12 #3

Views along Utah Hwy 12
Views along Utah Hwy 12 #4

Views along Utah Hwy 12
Views along Utah Hwy 12 #5

Views along Utah Hwy 12
Views along Utah Hwy 12 #6

Views along Utah Hwy 12
Views along Utah Hwy 12 #7

For reference, the above photos were taken, generally speaking, along the stretch of Highway 12 that follows Calf Creek (route highlighted in red on the Google Earth screenshot below).


Simply put, this stretch of highway offers some of the most incredible views I've seen.


A traced route of Highway 12 near Calf Creek in Utah
Google Earth view of Highway 12 along Calf Creek


Snowbound in the Dixie National Forest


Not long after passing through Boulder, Utah conditions changed dramatically as I continued to gain elevation. Instead of a dusting of snow here and there, or viewing snowcapped mountains in the distance, I was surrounded by a snowy wonderland.


there were only a few areas where I felt I could safely pull over

Unfortunately, I was also unable to stop and appreciate much of it due to the giant snowplow berms along most of the route. Windblown snow drifts also took the highway down to only one and a half lanes in places. With the shoulders piled high, there were only a few areas where I felt I could safely pull over. A bit frustrating as I could catch glimpses of amazing snowy vistas as I traversed the highway, but I was unable to make many photos.


A sad man thwarted by snow along Highway 12 in the Dixie National Forest
When you know there's an amazing view off to your left, but you're not confident in the stability of the snow berm and decide not to attempt climbing on it...

Thankfully, all was not lost! There were a few pullouts that were clear of snow. I spent quite a while at one in particular, a bit south of Larb Hollow Overlook. It offered an amazing view looking into Capitol Reef National Park with Mt. Ellen and Mt. Pennell in the distance (when visible). I had to stomp some steps into the snow to actually see anything, but it worked out quite well and I was able to capture several frames over the course of an hour or so.


Steps in a pile of snow with a tripod on top
Stairway to Heaven... or at least a great view.

In typical fashion, video does little to no justice to how tall the snow pile was... I could not see over it from the road!



I decided to stick around for a while to see what the distant snowstorm would do. I had hoped it would drift closer to the mountains, but it was fairly stationary off to the left of them. I took the opportunity to make some hot tea and enjoy a cold lunch while occasionally checking on my composition and capturing additional frames as things changed.


4Runner camping setup along Highway 12 in Utah
Lunch and tea at 9,000'. I've definitely eaten at worse locations!

A man squinting in the sun along Utah Highway 12
Snowblind Selfie. The skin around my eyes was chapped from tears drying in the cold wind.

Snowstorm along Highway 12 in Utah
Distant storm while flurries drifted around me.

After finishing lunch - and brewing a second mug of tea after knocking over the first one - I headed on and quickly stopped at Larb Hollow Overlook upon finding the entrance and parking lot nicely cleared of snow. I didn't stick around too long but did take the time to find a wider composition of the vista I'd been photographing during my lunch stop as the viewpoint had a nice smattering of trees in a snowy field that I used as a foreground.


One benefit of so much time passing since my last entry: I've finally started editing my photos from this trip. Here's a look at a work-in-progress of that shot:


Snowstorm over Capitol Reef National Park as seen from Larb Hollow Overlook on Utah Hwy 12
The encroaching storm as seen from Larb Hollow Overlook.

Although I would have loved to have had the opportunity to stop more along this stretch of Highway 12, the experience I had at these two spots was certainly not disappointing.


After leaving Larb Hollow, I continued on to Torrey. While still beautiful, once I crossed over the pass and the snow on the ground thinned out and eventually disappeared again, there was nothing of too much interest photographically speaking. I took a couple shots just outside of Torrey as I headed back up the pass; one of them may have potential but I'm not entirely sold on it yet.


On my way back I pulled over at my lunch spot again to see how the view had changed, and also made a quick stop further back along the highway towards Boulder where the shoulder was clear. Below are some unedited previews of the candidates I shot after turning around in Torrey:


Collage of photos from along Highway 12 in Utah
Unedited frames from (top row then bottom): just outside of Torrey, back at my lunch spot, and blowing snow creating some interest at my final stop along Highway 12.

As I wrapped up at my final stop, I had a choice to make: head all the way back along Highway 12, or make a detour along the way to check out Burr Trail.


Burr Trail won out... and I'm glad it did.



Burr Trail and Capitol Reef National Park


Decision made, I was anxious to get down to the "bottom" of Burr Trail, in the general area where I made Transcendent Glow and other photos in 2022. Given I would be arriving in the late afternoon / early evening, I was not expecting to revisit those prior compositions for anything other than fond memories (they were all made mid-morning the prior year). On the other hand, I wanted to see if I could catch any good reflected