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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 light later in the day.

What I was not expecting, however, was arriving to a snow shower. Even better!

Even better, except for one little problem: it blew through the canyon in a few minutes. I had enough time to frame up one rushed (and mediocre) composition before it was gone. Talk about a rollercoaster ride of emotions.

Ten more minutes and the sun started coming out, and I ended up with a messy mix of light that was either too harsh or not strong enough to create much in the way of reflected light off the canyon walls as scattered clouds drifted overhead.

the quality of light was completely different without the strong morning sun

I stopped by the offshoot canyon where I made Transcendent Glow, out of curiosity more than anything. As expected, the quality of light was completely different without the strong morning sun reflecting off the red rock walls.

Soft afternoon light (2023 - left)) vs. strong morning light (2022 - right):

It was obvious the light wasn't going to work within this canyon section of Burr Trail, so I hopped back in the truck and continued on, unwilling to give up completely. I knew, from 2022's visit, that the road continued on into Capitol Reef National Park, and just a short way in there were some great views. If I was lucky, I had a chance for some dramatic skies with the late-day sun.

I knew there was a strong chance the road would be impassable

It was a bit of a gamble, though: I also knew that around the point where you're treated to some of the best vistas, the pavement ends, and you find yourself on a dirt and gravel road. Additionally, it's not long after that transition when you hit a very steep switchback.

Given the risks of Utah mud that I've mentioned in prior segments of this trip report, I knew there was a strong chance the road would be impassable (and not worth risking while traveling solo).

Regardless, I wasn't going to head back to camp without at least trying to hit Capitol Reef. I also wasn't ready to call it quits on what had already been a great day.

As you leave the "canyon" portion of Burr Trail (what I referred to as the bottom, previously), there's an overlook you can stop at for an incredible vista of the valley you'll be dropping down into. When we stopped there in 2022 the wind was brutal: we could barely stand up straight, let alone take any photos, and I was mostly concerned with staying well back from the steep slope in front of the overlook.

This year, all was calm, and I was able to spend some time just enjoying the view. With nearly clear skies behind me but the same storm system I saw up on Highway 12 in front of me, it was pretty spectacular.

Burr Trail overlook, looking towards Capitol Reef
The view from the Burr Trail overlook. Fun fact: that's Mt. Pennell in the distance on the right, the same mountain I photographed from atop the snowbank along Hwy 12.

I mean... come on. That view!

I made one brief stop between the overlook and where I abandoned the route further into Capitol Reef (the dirt and gravel road was indeed slippery, even on fairly shallow grades). I found a nice view - hence pulling over to hike a short way to a drop-off/viewpoint - but it's another example of a composition that may or may not work:

View into Capitol Reef National Park from Burr Trail
Unedited frames from my brief stop: I waited for a cloud to diminish the light on the foreground but, although the background is stellar, I'm not convinced the composition works as anything more than a travel snapshot.

Whether the above composition worked or not, I rushed back to the 4Runner as there was definitely interest in the background, and I was hopeful that I would find the same with better foregrounds as I made my way further into Capitol Reef. Unfortunately, as noted, the condition of the road had other ideas.

I was already sliding and slipping more than I liked

Whereas Jon and I made it to the switchbacks the year prior before turning around due to time, not poor road conditions, I was already sliding and slipping more than I liked well before I reached any significant grades. I ended up parking the truck and ran around on foot, heading a bit further down the road and scrambling up and down hills to work as many compositions as I reasonably could in a fairly small area.

The angle of the sunlight made for vibrant color in both the landscape and the sky (which is not fairly represented in the phone snaps below).

The Burr Trail entrance to Capitol Reef National Park
The end of the road for me...

I'm going to hold back from sharing any of my Big Camera photos from here. You'll have to wait for the gallery release!

Well, I'll share one: a very quick and dirty edit of a glamour shot of the Photography Adventure Rig.

Toyota 4Runner on the Burr Trail in Capitol Reef National Park
4Runner Photography Adventure Rig and amazing views of Capitol Reef National Park, taken at 105mm to compress the scene and add emphasis to the distant landscape features.

And now the cell phone teasers of the conditions I had the pleasure of working with while I ran around excitedly:

Capitol Reef National Park
Phone snap of Capitol Reef

Capitol Reef National Park
Phone snap #2 of Capitol Reef... I was otherwise too occupied with shooting with my Canon bodies to bother with more phone snapshots.

Once I was satisfied with the photos I'd made, I started making the two-hour drive back to camp. It's possible I got back to my site after having missed out on an opportunity to shoot a pretty nice sunset out over the valley, but I had zero complaints. A day that had looked like it may be a complete loss when I woke up to such underwhelming conditions had turned into one hell of a whirlwind - and productive - adventure.

Sunset near Calf Creek, Highway 12 Utah
I made one final stop along the Calf Creek section of Highway 12 before getting back to my campsite. Not a bad way to cap off an awesome day.

More to Come...

I still have two more days to cover for my 2023 Utah trip report, so stay tuned for more! On day six I explored a new-to-me location before heading back to Burr Trail, and then wrapped up my time in Utah with an exploratory hike within a canyon on day seven.

Michael Rung

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29 ago 2023
Obtuvo 5 de 5 estrellas.

Great write-up Michael. The Larb Hollow Overlook is quite a stunning landscape.

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Michael Rung
Michael Rung
05 sept 2023
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Thanks, and yes it is! I definitely need to spend more time further north along Hwy 12 when it's not snowed in.

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