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Utah Trip Report: Day Three / Highway 12 & Bryce Canyon

Scouting along Utah Highway 12 & sunset at Bryce Canyon (Take 2)


If you missed the previous reports from this trip to southern Utah, you can read day one here and day two here.



After a fantastic second day exploring and photographing Bryce Canyon National Park, I decided to shift gears a bit and run a quick reconnaissance mission to check out the area in which I planned to camp after I finally left Bryce behind... but I still headed back to the park for one last romp photographing the late afternoon and sunset light.


 

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Exploring Utah Highway 12


Once again, the forecast was calling for a bitterly cold morning for Bryce Canyon City - if I recall correctly, the overnight low was somewhere in the ballpark of 0 to -4 degrees Fahrenheit - which meant the overlooks in the park itself would be even colder.


When I left home in Texas just a few days prior, it was around 75!


Call me a wimp, but I just wasn't up for standing at a potentially breezy overlook in negative temps awaiting sunrise. I also didn't sleep very well and was slow to get out the motel door. That's one drawback to solo trips: although I prefer to work in the field alone, it can be helpful to have someone else in the mix when one's motivation wanes a bit.


Regardless, I did some quick image reviews in my room before heading to breakfast and stocking up on a few supplies at the general store in town, and then decided to skip midday light at Bryce Canyon and scout out the location along Highway 12 where I planned to stake my claim for camping the next day and beyond.


If my preferred campsite was snowed in, I'd need to spend most of the day checking on alternative locations.

Going into the trip I knew Bryce was blanketed in deep snow, but I couldn't find any reliable status reports for areas within the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (which is, admittedly, a huge area to cover). If my preferred campsite was snowed in, I'd need to spend most of the day checking on alternative locations.


I was also hoping to spend some more time hunting compositions along the famous highway. Jon and I had driven along a fair bit of it last year and there were a few spots in particular I wanted to get back to on foot. For anyone that has driven Hwy 12 themselves, that's probably no surprise: it's one of the most beautiful drives I've ever done.


I was amazed by how different the drive was compared to last year. That amazement was primarily due to how much snow was on the ground and plowed into berms along the shoulders of the highway. That first part was great - beautiful snow-covered landscapes! - but the accompanying 5-6' tall barriers that had been created by snowplows as they worked to keep the highway clear significantly reduced the number of spots available to safely pull over and do some exploring on foot.


Powell Point Vista along Utah Hwy 12
You can't really tell in this photo, but the pile of snow in the foreground was around 6' high: considering the steep drop just beyond the highway's shoulder, I wasn't about to scramble on top of it.

Sunset at Powell Point Vista along Highway 12 in Utah
The same location - Powell Point Vista - around the same time last year. Quite the difference!

I was most interested in trying to explore some locations south and west of Powell Point Vista on Highway 12, along Henrieville Creek, but that's where the snow was heaviest so, for the most part, that area was a bust.


Alas! the best laid plans of mice and men.

There's a lot of beautiful vegetation along the creek bed that offers tons of potential in various types of light: I'd been looking forward to digging into the area after seeing it for the first time the prior year. Alas! The best laid plans of mice and men.


From a camping standpoint, once summiting the pass at Powell Point as I headed further northeast, the snow thankfully diminished significantly and as I got closer to the town of Escalante the ground was basically clear (my targeted camping spot was a little west of Escalante).


Photo of Grand Staircase-Escalante near Escalante, Utah
Looking out over the landscape from my planned campsite for the coming days. One of my favorite places on Earth, and I'd be treated to amazing morning conditions in just a few days' time!

A better look at the actual campsite... all I had to do was keep my fingers crossed that it remained available for about 24 more hours.



Once I was feeling reassured that my camping plans weren't going to be thrown aside due to snowy (or muddy) conditions, I started making my way back towards Bryce Canyon along Highway 12.


Not far past Powell Point, on the other side of the pass, I spotted a group of pine trees catching the sun as they stood nestled before a rockface that had already fallen into shadow. I'm always on the lookout for such scenes of contrast created by the play of light and shadow, but by the time I was able to find a spot to safely turn around and head back to them, the sun had shifted just enough that the trees were starting to fall into shadow, as well.


As luck would have it, though, as I was making my way back towards those trees, another little scene caught my eye, not far from a pullout along the highway. I quickly did another U-turn, parked, and made my way along the highway shoulder to a better vantage point to see if there was potential for a photo.


Taking photos along Highway 12 in Utah
Taking some photos of distant trees along Highway 12. I ended up on the other side of the guardrail to get better angles on the various compositions I worked.

Now this is where my lack of botany knowledge will be glaringly obvious... there was a bare tree with brilliant white bark (cottonwood?) being illuminated by the early afternoon sun with a foreground of red bushes (no idea what they were). The light and color made for great contrast, but the rocky terrain in the background also had a fair bit of sun slashing through it when I first arrived. That harsh light kept the tree from standing out as much as I'd like.


Having the patience to wait for the light is likely the single best thing I've done to improve my photographer over the years.

I decided to stick around to see how the light was shifting over time to see if there was a possibility of the background falling into shade while the tree and bushes were still lit up. Having the patience to wait for the light is likely the single best thing I've done to improve my photographer over the years.


After taking a sequence of shots every few minutes I was able to see that yes, indeed, the background was likely to fall into complete shadow while the foreground tree and bushes remained sunlit. I just needed to keep myself entertained for a bit (see the video below).


A bare tree along Highway 12 in Utah
Various compositions and test shots as the light shifted along Highway 12. You can see how the background gradually faded into full shadow over time.

I waited about half an hour from those first test shots to making the final photos: most of that time was spent waiting for the sun to shift as the last five photos you see above were all made within a span of only two and a half minutes or so once the background had finally fallen into shade.


By that point I was getting anxious to continue on my way to Bryce Canyon for late afternoon light and one more sunset. Feeling happy with the final photos I'd made from the side of Hwy 12, I packed up my gear and headed back to the truck.


Them: Oh, you're a landscape photographer? How fun!

Me: Mindlessly playing with a pile of snow while waiting for the light to change.



All together I "wasted" about six hours of the day, but I'd gained the peace of mind that my camping plans were still solid and walked away with a better idea of what to expect once I started the Grand Staircase-Escalante portion of my trip.


 

Afternoon Fun in the Bryce Canyon Sun


After the exhilaration of shooting sunset at the Bryce Point overlook the previous day, I was tempted to head back there again but, knowing conditions were similar, I didn't feel the photographic opportunities would be all that varied from what I had already captured. Instead, I opted for the Sunset Point area for my final sunset at Bryce Canyon.


Photography is more than welcome to take second place behind the experience of being in nature.

I spent the afternoon hours wandering along the Rim Trail between Sunset Point and Sunrise Point (the nearby Navajo Loop trail was unfortunately closed due to damage and unsafe conditions). The light wasn't terribly favorable at times as clouds were playing tag with the sun, but I still came away with some frames that I'm definitely excited to start working on... just not as many as I'd have liked.


A small pine tree on a ridge at Bryce Canyon National Park
Some candidate frames from my afternoon hike: I made several variations of this composition, working to isolate the small tree on the ridgeline against a clean background.

Looking over Bryce Canyon from the Rim Trail near Sunrise Point
A test composition taken with my iPhone as I laid on my belly along this little outcrop. I did end up pulling out the Big Camera for this one.

For the most part, as I'm wont to do, I focused on picking out the smaller details of the park with my 100-400mm lens: lone trees adrift in a field of snow, shadows cast against a canyon wall, or spotlights of sunlight against shadow. With the heavy snow, I especially enjoyed finding little snowy ridges as seen in the sequence above with the lone tree.


There were also some opportunities to photograph lone trees completely isolated against the snow, such as this work-in-progress photo:


A lone tree in a snow drift at Bryce Canyon National Park
An early edit of one of my favorite photos of the afternoon, taken while wandering along the Above the Rim Trail.
Shadows of pine trees along the Above the Rim Trail at Bryce Canyon National Park
Another early edit: I like the concept of this image as trees along the top of the canyon cast shadows onto a rocky wall below, but the sun never was quite strong enough to give me the sharply defined shadows I was hoping for. I may end up trying high contrast black and white processing on this one.

As the sunset hour started the light turned pretty lackluster as clouds stubbornly stuck around on the western horizon. There were some interesting shadows cast across the sky by some of the clouds to the south and east as direct light on the landscape faded away, but I feel the afternoon light - and subsequent photos I made - were the highlight of my time at the park this day.


Thumbnail photos of late afternoon and sunset at Bryce Canyon National Park
Unedited candidates from Day 3 at Bryce Canyon. The final three are fairly representative of the whimpering sunset as clouds built on the western horizon.

Now, I may seem a little down on what I was able to achieve on this third day at Bryce Canyon National Park - compared to day two's sunset light it had big shoes to fill - so let me close out this report with the spectacular finishing act: alpenglow on the distant landscape.


Or rather, I'm pretty sure it was alpenglow. I'm a terrible judge when it comes to determining whether light is alpenglow or just last light on the landscape... but I'm reasonably certain this time it was, in fact, alpenglow.


Maybe.


I think....


Anyways, whatever kind of light it technically was, it was spectacular:


Alpenglow at Bryce Canyon National Park
A quick edit of the alpenglow (or not!) I witnessed at Bryce Canyon after my final sunset at the park.

And just like that, the light was gone. Not a bad way to close out the day!


 

Admittedly, day three at Bryce was not as spectacular, but it was still a great experience. While it's easy to fall into the trap of feeling disappointed if you set high expectations for amazing conditions that don't transpire, I moved past that a long time ago (or rather, I've moved past letting that shut me down creatively). Photography is more than welcome to take second place behind the experience of being in nature.


it's easy to fall into the trap of feeling disappointed if you set high expectations for amazing conditions...

Although I wasn't quite as excited about the photography results as I was for day two's work, I still expect to have several "keepers" in my final candidate files (aka files that I feel are worth editing), and I went to bed that night feeling far more confident - or perhaps reassured is the better word - about my plans to camp in the Grand Staircase-Escalante area starting the next day. That's a success in my book.


Day four's report will be coming soon. I closed out my time at Bryce Canyon with great sunrise/morning light, and then decided to take an unplanned detour to a location I'd been wanting to visit for a long time... and it did not disappoint.


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