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Utah Trip Report: The End of the Road

Updated: Jul 10

Winding down with more Burr Trail explorations after a marathon week of photography


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



After five full days of photography adventures, I'll be the first to admit that I started to hit a bit of a mental and physical wall. My final two days - the sixth and seventh of the trip - were spent taking a slightly more leisurely approach to my explorations.


After sleeping in and enjoying a quiet breakfast at camp on day six, I headed into town to restock on some supplies before visiting a nearby attraction that I skipped in 2022, and then headed back to Burr Trail to take advantage of the great midday and afternoon light that came to Long Canyon with clear skies.


Day seven wrapped up the trip with a similar vibe as I explored a new-to-me hiking trail near Burr Trail. I also wrap up this trip report series with some final thoughts on the trip as a whole, and this trip report concept in general.



Day Six: Enough Already!

 

It's worth noting that the timing of this trip coincided with an upward trajectory in my health (read more about that in my Struggling blog post), but I was not in the best physical shape after several months of not being well. Better than I was, but not where I wanted to be heading into a trip like this.


For the most part, my lower-than-desired physical fitness didn't impede me too much, but I was starting to feel a bit run down in general by this point of the trip. I also continued to struggle to get a good night's sleep: that's something I often struggle with when I'm anxious to wake up early for sunrises or other morning plans. My mind can't seem to place its trust in the alarms I set, and I find myself waking up throughout the night, panicking that I've overslept.


I decided to forgo an alarm and just sleep until whenever.

As I settled down the evening before, I decided to forgo an alarm and just sleep until whenever. I still woke up fairly early but after a much better night's sleep. Even so, upon waking up and peeking outside, I opted to roll over and go back to sleep.


Sunrise at a campsite off Utah Highway 12
Sunrise at my campsite off Utah Highway 12.

As the rising sun began to warm up the inside of the 4Runner, I finally got out of bed around 10am and, continuing the theme of leisure, I took time to cook a big breakfast - instead of opting for dry cereal and powdered donuts, my on-the-go breakfast of choice - and sat and enjoyed the solitude of camp for a while.


Eating breakfast at camp
As usual when cooking on my Coleman stove, I overcooked my eggs... doh! Toast isn't the same without yoke to dip it in.

After breakfast, I ran into town (Escalante, UT) to stock up on water, and then sat outside the convenience store for a while, debating what, if anything, I wanted to do for the day while I chatted with some old work friends on the phone. I was torn between continuing the lazy vibes of the day to that point or trying to make a push for more photography opportunities.


I ended up doing a bit of both.



Visiting the Devil's Garden

 

Devil's Garden is an "Outstanding Natural Area" off Hole-in-the-Rock Road. It consists of sandstone towers, hoodoos, and arches. I chose to skip checking out this natural landmark during my 2022 Utah trip but, given my choice to spend the day at a slower pace, decided it was a good time to check it out. I went in without any expectations from a photography standpoint as it was midday with harsh light and, from what I'd seen about the place, sunrise and sunset were the best times for compelling light on the rocky formations.


Cows crossing a dirt road in Utah
I took an earlier turn off Hole-in-the-Rock Road than what Google advised: that was a mistake as I got stuck in traffic for a bit.

Arriving at Devil's Garden doesn't instill one with an immediate sense of wonder. It's a relatively small area, with not much visible from the parking lot. My rundown mental and physical state didn't help my excitement, either, but I still wandered along the short half-mile trail. I was there, so why not?


I now wish I had brought the camera along to take a few proper shots.

As it turns out, for such a small space, especially, it's pretty cool. I left my camera in the truck, although as I look back at the phone snaps I took, I now wish I had brought the camera along to take a few proper shots. Although the sun was, indeed, very harsh (I arrived around 2pm), that very harshness is what provided some unique compositions.


Devil's Garden off Hole-in-the-Rock Road in Utah
After following the trail to the right from the parking lot, you soon get a better sense of what Devil's Garden has to offer.

An arch at Devil's Garden in southern Utah
One of the compositions that could have made a compelling photo, possibly in black and white with the use of a red filter to darken the sky (although the color of the rock contrasts nicely with the intense blue sky).
A tree through a stone arch at Devil's Garden in Utah
A test composition for the next time I visit: I tried a few different options to frame this tree within the arch.
A window in the rock at Devil's Garden off Hole-in-the-Rock Road
There are several windows throughout the rock formations, offering glimpses of the sky.
A slit in the rock formations at Devil's Garden in southern Utah
Another window to the sky.
Hoodoos at Devil's Garden in southern Utah
Erosion will create more individual hoodoos over time.

Ironically, and stereotypically for a nature photographer, I found myself most intrigued by ripples of sand I noticed as I was driving back to Highway 12 along Hole-in-the-Rock Road. I caught sight of a small area of sand and promptly pulled a U-turn to check it out. I believe I spent almost as much time photographing this little rippled detail as I did at Devil's Garden. Go figure.


Sand ripples created by wind
Ripples of sand on the shoulder of Hole-in-the-Rock Road.

More importantly, getting the camera out and making photos of that sand rekindled the creative fires a bit. Wrapping up there, I braved the horrible washboard journey back to Highway 12 and continued on to Burr Trail once again.



Wonderful Reflected Light Along Burr Trail

 

As I noted in my Day Five write up, the "lower" section of Burr Trail - technically known as Long Canyon - is quite dependent on strong sunlight. Although such light can create too-harsh conditions, at the right time of day it also provides amazing reflected light bouncing off the tall red and orange canyon walls.


I made one quick stop before heading along the narrower drive through the canyon, to check out the trailhead for the Upper Gulch trail. Considering it was already approaching 5:30pm, I decided to leave the hiking for the next day; I at least knew it wasn't muddy or washed out.


Toyota 4Runner TRD Pro Army Green
I just had to take a glamour shot of the Photography Adventure Rig as I climbed back up from the Upper Gulch trailhead.

Shortly beyond the pull-off for that trailhead, Burr Trails continues into the narrower confines of Long Canyon. That's where the nature of reflected light comes into play.


I was held outside by the amazing glow of light that was bouncing off the opposing canyon wall

Not too surprisingly, I found myself stopping at the site of Transcendent Glow again. Instead of heading into the small slot canyon to revisit the Transcendent Glow viewpoint, I was held outside by the amazing glow of light that was bouncing off the opposing main canyon wall onto the entrance of the smaller canyon.


Singing Canyon along the Burr Trail in Utah
The backside of Transcendent Glow: sadly, my iPhone washed out the strong reflected light that was bathing this scene as sunlight bounced off the canyon wall behind me.

Given my later arrival time, I didn't bother driving beyond Long Canyon. Perhaps the dirt road in Capitol Reef National Park would have been drier (almost certainly so), but after spending an hour or so finding compositions to take advantage of the reflected light I was ready to start making my way back to Highway 12 to find a spot to camp for the night.


Photos from Long Canyon along Burr Trail in Utah
A few examples of reflected light along Burr Trail from my unedited camera files (keep in mind the files are flatter than reality in their unedited form).

I had my camping plans set on a specific little pullout along the "top" of Highway 12 as it follows Calf Creek. It's not far from the road at all, which could be cause for concern from a noise standpoint, but especially at that time of year there's not a ton of traffic, and what there is drops considerably once the sun goes down. The spot was taken the evening before when I passed it by but, fortunately, I was able to snag it for myself this day.


Car camping along Highway 12 in Utah
Campsite view from in front of the truck.
Car camping along Highway 12 in Utah
Behind and to the left of where I pulled in for the night, providing an idea of the site's proximity to the road. Ended up with a pretty intense sunset, too!

A little tour of my campsite for the night.


Sunset along Highway 12 in Utah
Beautiful sunset, although I didn't really have much in the way of foreground interest for a photo. I ended up spending more time admiring the view than taking photos of it.
4Runner car camping setup
Dinner, a mug of hot tea, and camping with the 4Runner... doesn't get much better! My new magnetic lights worked out awesomely, too.
Orion constellation over Highway 12 in Utah
The iPhone doesn't do the night sky out here justice, but I still had to grab a shot of Orion before settling down for the night.

A low-key day came to an end, but still worthwhile and quite productive. Any day where I can walk away confident I made five or so successful photos is a win in my book. I felt I had at least 10 good candidates from this sixth day of shooting.


Any day where I can walk away confident I made five or so successful photos is a win in my book.

With no set plans for the morning again, I also slept like a baby!



Day Seven: Blown Away

 

I woke up at... some time or other. I have no idea. It was well into daylight. I had my usual morning cup of tea to help jump start my engine, and then proceeded back to Burr Trail, this time with the goal of hiking along the Upper Gulch trail that I had briefly scouted the day before.


I didn't know if this would end up being my last day in Utah or not

At this point of the trip, I didn't know if this would end up being my last day in Utah or not: the forecast for the following day had already triggered a Wind Watch for southern Utah, northern Arizona, and much of New Mexico, with gusts expected up to 60-70 MPH. That would be a nightmare to try to shoot in. I figured I'd see how the day went and make a decision that night or the next morning.


Before hiking down the trail, I drove along Long Canyon once more to see how the light was playing out. Given I arrived shortly after high noon, there wasn't much in the way of reflected light, so I found myself mostly scouting for potential future compositions when the light was streaming into the canyon at a lower angle. Even so, I did make a handful of photos where the light still worked in my favor.


Canon R5 using a Tamron 100-400mm lens
If the 100-400mm lens is on my camera, there's a good chance I've found an interesting tree in the distance...
Photographing along Burr Trail
Phone snap of the tree that caught my eye: the light looks horrible in this phone capture, but I think the Canon R5 file has potential. Using a circular polarizer helped greatly here.

Counter to my initial plan to head out along Upper Gulch trail first thing, I ended up spending more than two hours slowly driving and walking through Long Canyon, hunting compositions.


Photos of Burr Trail in Long Canyon
A collage of unedited frames made with my Canon cameras, some more successful than others.

Finally making my way to the trailhead around 1:30pm, I took a sandwich break to get some calories in before the hike. While relaxing under the tailgate of the truck, I also surveyed the surrounding canyon walls for potential compositions, finding a couple that I was able to frame up with the 100-400mm lens.


Camera on tripod under tailgate of Toyota 4Runner
I spy in the distance...
Sunlit tree on a cliff edge in southern Utah
Doesn't look like much with the (extremely zoomed in) phone camera, but a tree with backlit foliage against a shadowed canyon wall has potential!
Sandstone arch with a tree above it along Long Canyon and Burr Trail in southern Utah
Another rough looking phone snap... as I was eating my sandwich under the tailgate, I saw something that looked like a possible arch high up on the opposite canyon wall. Sure enough, once I was close enough, I found a hidden little arch near the top. I made a mental note to check back after my hike to see if the harsh light on the left would be gone.

With some thin clouds drifting in and out overhead, I finally started my hike. I had no expectations from a photography standpoint, which is why I wasn't too concerned to be doing the hike in the middle of the afternoon, when the light wasn't best within the wider canyon. I just wanted to see what there was to see, or at least a bit of it.


It's a nice enough hike, but it's also apparent the scenery would be best enjoyed in spring or fall

The trail is about 8.5 miles long, but I only ended up covering a smidge more than the first mile before heading back to the trailhead. It's a nice enough hike, but it's also apparent the scenery would be best enjoyed in spring or fall, with either the vibrant greens of new growth or golden fall colors on the many cottonwood trees that line the creek.


Upper Gulch trail in southern Utah
I had to hop over this creek several times in the span of hiking just a mile down the trail.
Twisted cottonwood trees along Upper Gulch trail in Utah
Some nice, gnarly trees but at the wrong time of day/year.

A little behind-the-scenes look at my surroundings, and a nice shaped and sunlit tree I came across on my hike back.


Although the photography opportunities were scarce on this particular hike, I did come across one composition as I made my way back to the truck. A large cottonwood tree was nicely backlit while also receiving some glowing light that was reflecting off its surroundings and onto the tree's main structure.


A sunlit cottonwood tree along Upper Gulch trail in southern Utah
A great combination of backlight and reflected light on this large cottonwood tree.

Once I was back at the truck, I took a little breather and then walked back over to the opposing canyon wall to check on the hidden arch I had found earlier. As luck would have it, the harsh light that was catching some of the rockface through the arch had disappeared. Unfortunately, I stupidly left my camera and tripod back in the truck, so I found myself jogging back and forth.


it all worked out and I ended up with one of my favorite photos from the trip.

High clouds were beginning to roll in, driving my need to hurry. I was concerned I'd lose the dappled blue sky before I could get back with the camera and frame up a composition.


In the end, however, it all worked out and I ended up with one of my favorite - and completely unexpected - photos from the trip. Here's a sneak peek at my work-in-progress edited shot:


Hidden arch along Burr Trail in southern Utah
Soft afternoon light on this little arch that was hidden away near the top of the canyon wall.

Not a bad day, not a particularly good day (from a photography perspective), but an enjoyable day, nonetheless.


By this point I was leaning heavily towards starting my trek home the next day, a couple days earlier than planned. The wind was already picking up: I spent a good portion of my time earlier in the day waiting for the wind to die down as I was trying to shoot along Long Canyon.


The issue wasn't movement of foliage - the day was bright enough that I was using shutter speeds that allowed for freezing most movement - so much as camera shake as the wind gusted through the canyon. That becomes a bigger problem when shooting at longer focal lengths, which is where I spent much of my time with the 100-400mm lens.


There's no cell service in that stretch of Burr Trail, but I suspected the forecast hadn't changed for the next 24-48 hours. Indeed, when I got back into the coverage area the Wind Watch was still pending.


Feeling like the trip was winding down to a close, I headed on back to my previous campsite location off of Highway 12, taking the time to stop at one of the overlooks along the way and take in the stunning views one last time.


Highway 12 view in southern Utah
Drinking it all in...

I ended up having to track down a different campsite than what I claimed the first two nights after I left Bryce Canyon. It always helps to know the area and have backup plans! Thankfully, I knew that there were more spots further down the BLM road.


Camping on BLM land near Utah Highway 12
Backup campsite #2 still had amazing views for sunset.
Distant mountains overlooking Grand Staircase-Escalante
Speaking of sunset... I took time to get in some final photos with the Big Camera as the late light put on a show.

The next morning, I woke up at a reasonable time, read for a bit, recorded a walkthrough of my 4Runner camping setup, and then started out on the drive back to Page, Arizona.



Closing Thoughts

 

First things first, for those of you that have followed along over the course of six blog entries - and multiple months from start to finish! - I appreciate you.


Going into this trip report concept I didn't have much of a plan, although I certainly didn't expect it to take me this long to get through the trip. Heck, I didn't even start writing the first entry until six weeks after my return home from Utah. It's been a crazy year (thankfully less so over the past couple of months), and I wouldn't exactly say my timeliness of the posts for this series was idea.


Setting that all aside and focusing on the trip itself...


I started off by calling a last-minute audible to start the trip at Bryce Canyon (instead of closing out the trip there) due to the snowy forecast at that national park. I am so glad I did! I'm still working through editing my raw files, but it's looking pretty clear that I'll have more portfolio images just from the Bryce portion of this trip than I made over the entirety of my 2022 trip to Utah.


And that's not to dismiss the second half of the trip when I spent my time traversing Utah Highway 12 and Burr Trail: it's quite likely I'll be surpassing last year's portfolio additions from those few days, as well.


It's taken me a long while to find the creative energy to focus on editing this year's photos (I delve into the Why here). Once I finished my culling process, I found myself facing the prospect of editing well over 100 photos from the trip. 141, to be exact, although many of those will be dismissed upon a closer look. Regardless, to offer some perspective, I have 29 photos from my 2022 trip that made it into my portfolio of published images.


A large part of me scoffs at the idea of possibly publishing four times that many from this year's trip... but it's looking very possible. And to think, I was disappointed that many of the locations I wanted to visit were inaccessible!


Ultimately, the productivity of this trip speaks largely to the beauty and variety of southern Utah, as well as the great conditions I encountered this year. The really ironic part is that I left Utah feeling somewhat underwhelmed with my photography results. That was probably the outcome of fatigue more than anything else.


Circling back, I believe I'll likely try to condense future trip reports down a bit, perhaps combining multiple days into a single post, or focusing on a single location per post. I'm not sure an entry for every day, especially for my longer trips, is the best approach. But if you've made it this far, let me know what you think in the comments. I expect this concept to be evolving over time.


Oh, yes... about that wind:


Blowing dust while driving through Arizona
My windshield view for most of my drive through Utah to Page, AZ and on through New Mexico.

I'm surprised my truck isn't missing paint after driving through conditions like this for the better part of two days. That experience made me feel better about my decision to cut the trip short by a couple days.



 

Michael Rung

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