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Utah Trip Report: Day Four / One Last Outing at Bryce Canyon

Sunrise photography at Bryce Canyon and taking time for myself

If you missed the previous reports from this trip to southern Utah, you can read them here: Day One, Day Two, Day Three

After skipping sunrise the first two mornings I was in Bryce Canyon National Park due to lows near or below zero (that's about -18 for all you non-U.S readers) - and being a heat-acclimated Texan - I was finally able to sneak in a sunrise visit before saying goodbye to the park for my 2023 trip to Utah. I then decided to take some time for myself on a small side adventure before heading north to my campsite for the night.


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Photographing Sunrise at Bryce Canyon National Park

I'm not sure what it was on the first part of this year's trip to Utah, but I slept horribly every night I was visiting Bryce Canyon. I couldn't seem to fall asleep even though I was pleasantly worn out from each day's explorations, and what sleep I did get in was interrupted by sporadic bouts of wakefulness.

And so, I found myself loading my gear into the 4Runner after only five hours of fitful sleep, not particularly amped up to head to the park for sunrise but also determined not to skip it yet it again as the morning temps were fairly comfortable, especially compared to my first two mornings.

I did arrive a bit later than I'd have liked but, fortunately, I don't believe I missed any good light thanks to some clouds on the eastern horizon that were just clearing as I got to Sunset Point (it's an ironic bit of naming but Sunset Point is a great spot for morning light as it actually faces eastward).

Sunrise at Sunset Point in Bryce Canyon National Park
Clearing clouds for sunrise at Sunset Point in Bryce Canyon National Park

While in many ways shooting Bryce at sunrise offers similar opportunities as shooting at sunset, the differing directional light changes things up quite a bit. You're greeted with a whole new variety of rim/edge lighting, backlit features, and reflected light. Many of the concepts may be similar, but the compositions you can find are reset from the afternoon and evening before.

Since I was once again treated to mostly clear skies after those early clouds drifted away, I spent my time playing with the 100-400mm lens to pick out spotlighted details within the grander landscape; I only took a few photos with the 24-105mm and, even then, they were all taken at the far end of the lens.

That morning characteristic provides a softer, often richer warm light

Thanks to the orientation of the hoodoo amphitheater, you can also get more direct light while the sun is close to the distant horizon - assuming there aren't clouds on the eastern horizon - whereas at sunset the sun dips below the landscape at a higher elevation, before it has the opportunity to cut through more of the earth's atmosphere. That morning characteristic provides a softer, often richer warm light to bathe the hoodoos and canyon walls.

A tree in morning light at Bryce Canyon
A completely unedited, yet already vibrant, photo of a tree in morning light at Bryce Canyon

I ended up shooting for only a little over an hour. "Missing" the very first light of the day - I'm reasonably certain there wasn't anything to miss thanks to the clouds I saw as I drove to the park - and then shifting into light more similar to sunset conditions as the morning progressed left me feeling pretty satisfied with what I had achieved, not just that morning but throughout my time at the park.

I think, ultimately, I was feeling a bit creatively tapped out

Part of me wanted to stay one more night so I could take a second swing at sunrise, but I was also anxious to move on to the next phase of my trip. I'd already called one audible by staying a third night, and I was feeling ready to move on. I think, ultimately, I was feeling a bit creatively tapped out with the location and needed the spark of something different to reenergize me for the second half of my trip.

As I write this, I realize I may be coming across as a bit "down" on my experience at Bryce for the second day in a row... but I assure you, I wasn't! I had a great time getting to know the park a little better, and seeing it blanketed with so much snow fulfilled the dream I'd had since first visiting back in the summer of 2018.

A collage of photos from Bryce Canyon National Park
A few more unedited photos from my morning at Bryce Canyon

Heck, I walked away with just over two hundred candidates for editing from just three and a half days. Two hundred! Even if I only end up happy with 10% of them, I'll have nearly matched my output from the entirety of my 2022 trip to Utah.

I learned a while ago that forcing things is counterproductive to making good photos.

Perhaps, in the first few years of my photography journey, I'd have pushed through and forced myself to do more: hike more, shoot more, stay one more or two more nights... but I also learned a while ago that forcing things is counterproductive to making good photos.

Perhaps I could have made that push to shoot more, and maybe I'd have walked away with even more candidate photos, but I didn't want to burn myself out only halfway through my planned time on the road. There's no shame in moving on if your mind and body, and most importantly your creative soul, are telling you it's time to do so.

Feeling content, I left Bryce Canyon behind and decided to treat my soul to a little unplanned side excursion before heading on to (hopefully) stake my claim at the campsite I scouted the day before.

Michael Rung at Bryce Canyon National Park
One last cheeky selfie at Bryce Canyon


Visiting Zion National Park

Between following and chatting with Ben Horne and Eric Erlenbusch - both of whom clearly love Zion National Park - it's not surprising that I felt myself being compelled to head in the opposite direction from my campsite for a quick detour at southwest Utah's other national park.

This was not a visit meant for photography. I suppose, if the opportunity had been presented to take a photo of something that really sang to me as I drove through the park, I would have pulled out the big camera to capture a frame or two. In the end, however, I had zero intention of doing so: this little side trip was purely for me, the non-photographer.

I literally went in knowing nothing about where I'd end up.

I just wanted to see the park!

After grabbing one last late breakfast at Ruby's Inn in Bryce Canyon City and doing some souvenir shopping at the general store (how could they be out of souvenir spoons? Sorry, mom!), I started on my way. Keep in mind I'd never been to Zion before, and this was mostly a spur of the moment thing, so I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I literally went in knowing nothing about where I'd end up.

Zion National Park east entrance
Welcome to Zion National Park!

You'll have to forgive me, but I don't have an exciting story or particularly interesting photos to share, so I'll be keeping this brief: I arrived, I drove through from the east entrance to the visitors center, and left. I got out to look around once, at Checkerboard Mesa. It was amazing, though, and I definitely want to get back to really dig into all that the park has to offer (especially away from the crowds).

Map of Zion National Park to drive from the east entrance to the visitors center
The route I took into Zion National Park... can't even say I scratched the surface!

Speaking of Checkerboard Mesa, the main reason it was the only place I stopped and got out of the truck was because the park was packed. I only came upon one other spot where I could pull over and really take in the view.

View from the Checkerboard Mesa view area in Zion National Park
This isn't Checkerboard Mesa, but it's the view from near the parking lot.

Driving through Zion National Park
Bad phone snaps through the windshield do little justice for the views...

Entrance to a short tunnel in Zion National Park
The entrance to a short tunnel heading east towards the Mount Carmel Tunnel.

The view coming out of the Mount Carmel Tunnel heading east in Zion National Park
The stunning view coming out of the Mount Carmel Tunnel heading eastbound

Zion scenic drive viewpoint 2 in Zion National Park
The view at the scenic view pullout as I headed down the switchbacks after the tunnel.

Google Earth view of Carmel Mountain tunnel and the switchbacks below the western entrance at Zion National Park
I'll let Google Earth try to convey the sense of scale and wonder one is privy to while driving through the switchbacks below the tunnel.

Perhaps not surprisingly, I was somewhat tempted to cancel my plans to head back to the northeast into Grand Staircase-Escalante after getting a small taste of what Zion National Park has to offer, but given I had put in zero planning for Zion - even I, who likes to go into a trip and largely wing it, plans a little bit - I felt it was best to stick with my original itinerary.

Also, did I mention the main park areas were swarming with people?

I know one can get away from the crowds with just a little bit of effort but, again, some idea of where to do so would be wise. Next time!


Camping in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

A few hours after turning around at the completely full visitors center parking lot at Zion, I was settled at camp. Thankfully, the spot I'd stayed at in 2022 and had scouted the day before was still available. It has incredible views of the amazingly rugged, varied, and beautiful landscape just steps from where I parked the 4Runner.

Campsite in Grand Staircase-Escalante
Panoramic view of my campsite from the back of the 4Runner: to the right is the trail from the BLM road, while just steps away to the left lay amazing views.

The wind had really picked up by the time I wolfed down a sandwich and some chips and guacamole for dinner, so I soon found myself settled in bed in the back of the 4Runner, reading Lord of the Rings and enjoying the view out the window while the truck gently rocked.

Sleeping in the back of a 4Runner
One of my favorite places to be!

Weather Tech window shades in a 4Runner
The Weather Tech shades I bought are awesome, both for temperature control and blocking out light.

Relaxing and watching the world flow by...

Sleeping in the back of a 4Runner
And... bedtime!

Given the lousy nights of sleep I mentioned at the top of this post, I decided to skip sunset and settle down early. I also opted to skip setting an alarm.

the sun broke through spectacularly and the landscape suddenly danced to life

The next morning, I woke up to a light coating of snow and ice, and absolutely dull, dreary, cloudy skies... until the sun broke through spectacularly and the landscape suddenly danced to life as I wandered around near camp, enjoying my morning tea. I soon found myself running back to the truck to grab my camera gear and getting to work.

But you'll have to wait for my day five report to read and see more about that!


Check back soon for day five's report. After the clearing storm in the morning, I traversed the entirety of Highway 12, which would end up being my second snowy adventure of the trip.

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