Updated: Jul 11
Behind the scenes of photographing Bryce Canyon in winter
With growing skepticism around the authenticity of photos in this day and age of always evolving tools such as Photoshop and now, even more daunting, the ease with which photorealistic AI-generated images can be created, I want to pull back the curtain a bit more on my own experiences with photography.
Unlike my new blog series, Unframed, trip reports like this one aren't intended to focus on the making of a single image or collection of images. Instead, I simply want to take my readers along with me, as it were, on my journeys out into nature, especially on the bigger road trips I generally go on a few times a year.
The main intent here is to talk about where I went, what I saw, the conditions I encountered, why I made certain decisions throughout the trip, etc., while also sharing behind the scenes snapshots from along the way.
And now let's jump into my first attempt at doing so... I hope you enjoy!
I (somewhat) recently returned from my first Big Photography Trip of 2023: a journey that saw me retrace some of my steps from 2022's spring trip to southern Utah. I also found myself calling audibles to account for unexpected weather and conditions - both good and bad - that forced changes to my plans.
It will likely be several more weeks before I select my candidates and get through the editing process for my camera files, so this series is a bit of a behind the scenes look at my most recent experiences exploring Utah. You can also sign up for my newsletter to be the first to know when I release new photos in my Utah gallery.
Visiting Bryce Canyon in the Summer of 2018
Before I dive into this year's excursion, it's worth taking a quick look back at my prior trips to southern Utah and, more specifically, Bryce Canyon National Park.
Somewhat ironically, even though I was in Utah for the better part of a week last year, I spent less time in the park than when I first visited it - for all of a single day - back in 2018. I was able to pack a lot into both visits, but I also knew there was a ton of opportunity still on the table.
I spent over 10 hours exploring the many viewpoints of the park, amazed by everything
Aside from seeing some photos online - which definitely piqued my interest - I really had no idea what to expect of Bryce before that 2018 stopover. It was summer, so it was hot... and very crowded. Regardless, I spent over 10 hours exploring the many viewpoints of the park, amazed by everything from the famous hoodoos of the Bryce Canyon amphitheater to the vistas spread before me further along the main park road.
After the sun fell below the horizon, the landscape took on an incredibly rich, warm appearance, with the oranges and reds of the rocks seeming to glow as the light slowly faded. After spending the day frantically running around the park to see as much as I could, I consciously took time for myself as I walked along the Rim Trail back towards the parking lot at Sunset Point.
2018 was the peak of my "run and gun" approach to photography, where I was shooting a lot, handheld, and not focused on any kind of slow, deliberate approach to composition. I also didn't allow myself to take time to truly appreciate my experiences out in nature.
The magic of dusk at Bryce Canyon got me to slow down for once as I lingered for a while just looking out over the amphitheater, drinking it all in without even thinking about photography. Once the sun had set the crowds thinned out quickly, making the moment that much better.
After that first taste, I was determined to return, although I didn't expect it to take nearly four years (I would have likely been back in 2020 but, well... the pandemic nixed that trip the day I was set to hit the road). I especially wanted to see the hoodoos in winter with pure white snow complementing the vibrant colors of the landscape. Photographing Bryce Canyon in winter quickly became a Bucket List item for me.
I got a bit of that wintry experience when I finally did return in 2022.
My First Time Visiting Bryce Canyon in the Winter
My friend Jon Fischer and I were once again on one of our crazy road trips where we ignored closer options and logged many (many) hours staring through our windshields as we escaped north Texas in March 2022.
As the "lead" for the trip, I had a loose itinerary and wasn't locked into any particular locations aside from a vague range of somewhere within the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument... and hopefully Bryce Canyon, since we'd be right there, after all.
If memory serves me correctly, the forecast for the area we camped at our first night in Utah was calling for clouds and strong winds the next day so, as we settled at camp that night, I made the decision to hit the road for Bryce well before sunrise the next morning. I was hoping to catch remnants of winter in the park but, as luck would have it, we ended up with more than just some left over snow on the ground.
After spending the early hours of the day at the Sunrise Point and Inspiration Point overlooks, I told Jon we needed to head further into the park. Jumping in our trucks, we were soon treated to unexpected snow showers as the road wound its way back and forth. Although the elevation throughout the park doesn't vary wildly, the geography is such that the relatively fair conditions we had at the initial viewpoints were replaced by sudden veils of falling snow.
The anticipation of it all as we drove along the scenic park road was definitely thrilling: I was finally getting at least a taste of what the landscape had to offer in the winter!
At the Natural Bridge viewpoint, in particular, the snow was falling quite heavily:
It was an amazing experience: I was as giddy as kid in a toy store! But we still only ended up spending one day at the park before heading to other locations for the rest of our trip. Thus is the problem with Utah: there are just so many unique and interesting things to see and explore, and Bryce Canyon was never intended to be the primary focus of the trip.
We did stop back by our morning spot on our way back out but, alas, the snowfall we encountered elsewhere never crossed the ridgeline separating the amphitheater from other areas of the park.
As with any tease, I was left wanting even more.
Be Careful What You Wish For: Record Snowfall for Utah
After having such a great time exploring and photographing southern Utah in March of 2022, I decided I was going to return later in the year for some fall photography. Unfortunately, I had to cancel my plans when our oldest dog required surgery and went through radiation therapy for a malignant tumor. Eventually, as we worked through her recovery and therapy, I decided to reschedule the trip for March of 2023.
I pushed this year's trip back to a week later than when Jon and I arrived in 2022, hoping to catch slightly warmer temps in the Grand Staircase-Escalante region and perhaps be treated to the very first signs of spring foliage. I was still too early for that for the most part and, ironically, it was colder and far snowier than last year's trip (other than that snowy day at Bryce, we didn't really encounter any winter conditions the rest of last year's trip).
When I arrived at the park this year there was still up to a whopping 40 inches of snow
As was the case with many western states, Utah was still grappling with its snowiest winter on record. As you saw above, there was just a bit of remaining snow in the Bryce Canyon amphitheater last year. When I arrived at the park this year there was still up to a whopping 40 inches of snow in the basin, and over 50 inches along the southern scenic drive. And more to come!
I had already been planning on visiting Bryce again but, instead of doing so towards the end of my Utah trip as I'd originally pondered, I decided to book a motel near the park for my first two nights on account of the weather forecast, both for Bryce Canyon itself and the area I was planning to use as my camping base in the Grand Staircase-Escalante region. Thanks to the amazing conditions I encountered, I even ended up extending my stay at Bryce to a third night.
The forecast for those first few days was calling for very cold nights - lows in the teens - where I would have been camping along Highway 12 further to the north and, even snuggled in my cozy 4Runner setup, I knew that would be pushing it. By starting out at Bryce instead, I was able to take advantage of a warm motel while also hoping for even more snowfall at the park.
several of the viewpoints and trails I wanted to revisit were inaccessible
Unfortunately, the deep snow throughout the park meant the main road was only open for the first three miles, so several of the viewpoints and trails I wanted to revisit were inaccessible (the Bryce Canyon Instagram account was indicating that the road might open a bit more during my trip, but it wasn't to be). That was a bit disappointing, but those first few miles conveniently include the best overlooks for the main amphitheater full of hoodoos, so all was definitely not lost.
But I certainly hadn't expected to find myself wishing for maybe just a little less snow.
Day One Notes: Page, Arizona to Bryce Canyon National Park
With all that background info out of the way, let's dive into the trip report!
After a somewhat early rise at my motel in Page, AZ where I tried to sleep off the effects of a 14-hour day driving from Texas (pro tip: I don't recommend the Rodeway Inn in Page, but I emphatically recommend the fried chicken at Bird House), I found myself back in the 4Runner, making my way towards Utah and Bryce Canyon.
My original plan was to first revisit the location where I made Finding Balance, but I was thwarted by a bit of a washout just a short way down the BLM road that I needed to traverse after crossing into Utah. I knew I could make it down the washout and across the shallow stream, but I wasn't sure about making it back up the somewhat deep, nearly vertical cut in the muddy bank from the water crossing to the road on my way out.
I opted to play it safe - something that became a recurring theme throughout this trip
Given I was traveling solo this time, I opted to play it safe - something that became a recurring theme throughout this trip - and turned around.
This obstacle wasn't totally unexpected as I'd been watching reports of road conditions throughout the region as all the snow meant there was a strong chance of encountering notorious Utah mud on unpaved roads as things began to thaw. Flash flooding and road washouts were also likely in places.
Nevertheless, it was not the most encouraging start to the Utah leg of my trip.
Fortunately, perhaps thanks to a bit of serendipity, I had made an unplanned stop just outside of Page, at Wahweap Overlook. There, I composed a few photos and also met another photographer with whom I chatted a bit (shout out to Charlie Maxwell for also recommending iOverlander to help with finding spots to boondock in the 4Runner).
After wrapping up there and abandoning my plans along the aforementioned BLM road once I was in Utah, I continued on my way until noticing a sign for Old Town Paria off Highway 89. I looped back to the parking area and pondered my next move as I enjoyed a snack and some hot tea under the tailgate of the 4Runner. My main debate was if it was worth the risk of getting stuck in mud to try exploring the unpaved Paria Movie Road.
Eventually, a Jeep exited that very road and stopped, so I took the opportunity to ask the driver about its conditions. After assurances that there was nothing too bad in terms of mud, I started out down the dirt track.
I was feeling slightly frustrated at encountering a second obstacle so soon
For the most part it was indeed fine, but there were a couple sketchy spots - perhaps worsening as the day warmed up and frozen mud began to thaw - and after finding a sizeable stretch of deep mud ahead of me near the trailhead for Old Paria, and no clear way to bypass it, I headed back towards the highway. I was feeling slightly frustrated at encountering a second obstacle so soon after the start of my explorations.
I did stop for a couple photos before turning back. My surroundings were absolutely stunning but, from a photography perspective, the frames I captured likely fall in the "pretty snapshot" category and nothing more. There's nothing wrong with that, and it was certainly worth the short detour. I just wish I hadn't run into that 50+ foot mud pit!
After that second muddy disappointment, I decided to just stick with the plan and drive straight on through to Bryce Canyon. It was shocking to see how much snow was on the ground as I made my way up Highway 89 from the south, and my excitement continued to grow as I knew I was going to find some great conditions in the park itself.
Getting into Bryce Canyon City it was also obvious that I was likely to encounter snow showers that day, so after a brief pitstop at Ruby's Inn I started down the main park road, bought my new annual National Parks pass at the entrance gate, and headed right to Sunrise Point.
After enjoying the views and feeling the familiar surge of adrenaline at witnessing such amazing scenes, and after watching countless tourists slip and slide (and fall), I dug my crampons out of my camera bag, figured out how to put them on my boots for the first time, and started down the Queen's Garden Trail. My first official foray onto a below-rim trail at Bryce Canyon!
As I made my way further along the trail - pondering how dumb it would be to continue to follow it all the way down to the amphitheater floor when I was far from acclimated to the elevation (approximately 8,000' at the rim, making the 350' climb back up feel far worse than it is) - the snow showers I had anticipated began to roll in. Huzzah! Just what I wanted!!
I tried to get off the trail enough to be out of the way of other hikers without sinking up to my knees or hips
But in yet another twist of fate, the snow mostly just limited visibility of the canyon itself. As I write this, I'm not even sure I attempted a photo of the main views from the trail, although I did stop to compose a few smaller-scene shots of some pines through the falling snow. It was a balancing act (literally) as I tried to get off the trail enough to be out of the way of other hikers without sinking up to my knees or hips just a few steps away from the well-packed path.
Feeling a bit put out after what seemed to be my third strike on my very first day in Utah, I hiked/wheezed my way back up to Sunrise Point and then on to my truck. From there, I enjoyed the heated seats as I made my way further along the road to Bryce Point, which was as far as one could drive at the time due to the deep snow.
The snow at Bryce Point was coming down even heavier (and was deeper on the ground). Although visibility still wasn't great, it did make for some nice atmospheric views, and I made a couple photos looking out over the partially obscured canyon.
As I wrapped up my day one explorations, even though they hadn't gone quite as a planned, I was extremely excited to get back the next day when clearer conditions were forecasted. Although the moody conditions of that first day brought a completely different look and feel to the park, I was anxious to see the hoodoos and rocky landscape come to life with the burst of vibrant color sunlight brings.
And to see those colors contrasted against so much snow, just as I'd been dreaming of since 2018... heck yeah!
Check back soon for the day two trip report or become a free site member to receive notifications via email whenever I publish new blog posts. Day two will have tales of snow blindness, sunburn, and some pretty amazing conditions for photographing Bryce Canyon.