Friday, September 20, 2013

Head West Young Man!

Fire in the Skies

The Great American Southwest has always been a region I knew I wanted to photograph.  After my trip out to Moab Utah, I knew there was so much more to see and photograph.  There are enough amazing landscape features and places to explore to keep a photographers attention for months on end.  I knew I wanted to see more, but I had no idea where to start.  So get comfy, this is a long blog post but will contain a lot of valuable information if this is the type of trip you're interested in taking.

That's when friend and fellow photographer, Stephen Masker, approached me about going to shoot the famous Antelope Canyons in Page Arizona.  Of course, I jumped at the chance.  Within a weeks time I had scheduled time off work and begun to research the details of the trip.  We quickly discovered that flying into Page was an expensive method of travel.  Being such a small town, there were no airlines flying directly in.  Most options had us flying into Flagstaff Arizona then taking a puddle jumper into Page.  Our trip was planned for the end of August and every airline search returned ticket prices of around $690 per person!  Well, we both knew we could a lot more with $690 than give it all to an airline.  So we decided to turn this into an epic end of summer road trip.  Stephen's car was practically new, so we'd have reliable transportation and we could switch off driving to make better time.  What this also did was open the door to MANY more photographic opportunities!  After just a bit more research, we began to find many locations along our route that would be incredible to shoot.  We sat down on Saturday and made a list of where we wanted to hit, where we would stay while traveling and how much everything would costs us.  Said and done, we were going to be able to take this entire trip for roughly the same price as the airline would have charge us just to fly there!

Our final location shoot list came down to; Cadillac Ranch, Upper and Lower Antelope Canyons, Horseshoe Bend, Four Corners, the South Rim of the Grand Canyon and a location known as Navajo Bridge.  Because of our schedules, we couldn't leave until a Sunday morning, but we have a week to travel and make it home by the following Sunday evening.  We would leave Sunday, drive 9 hours to Albuquerque New Mexico, then finish the final 6 hours to Page by Monday afternoon.  We were able to reserve our lodging in Page as well.  While other hotels in town wanted $140 to $170 per night, Motel 6 was only charging $70 a night!  All we wanted was a place to sleep, shower and leave our suitcases while out shooting.  So we jumped on that price!

We loaded the car and hit the road at 8am sharp, Sunday August 18th.  Weather forecast for the week and our route was to be mostly sunny and clear.  Great!  The first few hours of the trip flew by.  Fueled by breakfast, coffee, snacks and road tunes, we made it to Wichita Falls TX quicker than expected.  It was there, while Stephen was driving that we got pulled over by a motorcycle cop for speeding.  Oops!  He gave us a seriously lame lecture about how today was a "no tolerance" day, so he had to write us a ticket.  Really?  A no tolerance day you say?  Whatever.  Back to the trip.

The rest of the drive that day was uneventful.  We decided against stopping at Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo TX because it was on the East bound side of the highway and turning around was a hassle. So we bumped it on our itinerary for the return trip.  We arrived at the Best Western in Albuquerque at about 6:30pm and got all checked in.  The room and hotel were actually quite nice!  We grabbed some Mexican food for dinner and then hit the hotel pool and hot tub that evening.  Which felt great since we'd spent the entire day sitting still in the car!  I believe our room rate was $90 for the night.  We were told we were getting some kind of discounted rate because of the day and the room was normally $120.  The next morning we were up at 7am to get packed, check out and grab some food and coffee at Starbucks before hitting the road.  There was an excitement in the air as we put Albuquerque in the rear view mirror.  It must be noted that on this particular morning Stephen was suffering from excitement overload and sounded like a broken record and he repetitively made unintelligible sounds and yelled phrases that didn't make sense.  I just smiled and looked out the window.          

It was on this day things got a little interesting.  Our planned route has us heading West on highway 40 to Gallup NM, then heading North for a short time on 491, then West on 264 and North again on 191 until we hit 161 which takes us to highway 98 and into Page. While we had planned the route on Google Maps, we were going to be a long way from phone data service, so we couldn't use Google Navigation on our phones.  Our backup plan was a Garmin GPS unit for the car.  We believed it to be trustworthy.  Just after passing Ganado, NM, the Google route had us staying on 191 for a long time.  It was then the Garmin GPS tells us to head west out of Ganado and take a new route which could save us almost an hours time.  After a short discussion we decided to go for it.  We stayed on the 2 lane highway and headed West out of the little town.  Suddenly the Garmin tells us to turn right.  We look to the right and see a road that could be better described as a jeep trail.  A cattle guard separated the road from the start of this new dirt road.  We thought surely this must be a quick cut through to a new highway.  After more discussion we decided to take the dirt road and hope it was a shortcut.

Indian Route 52

After about 15 minutes of driving we stopped the car in the middle of the road and were faced with the scene in the above photo.  Later we discovered we were now on what was called Indian Route 52.  One of the many practically unmarked roads cutting through Navajo land.  Used mostly by locals... not by people on cross country road trips.  We had ventured too far to turn back, so we could only go forward.  Our only thought was, "Well... we wanted an adventure.  We got it!".  This "short cut" stretched on through a network of dirt roads for 40+ miles, adding an extra 2 hours to the trip.  Luckily weren't on a tight schedule.  And looking back, this detour gave me some really cool photos.  So in retrospect, I'm quite happy we veered off course... this time.

By 2:30 pm (Arizona time) we were rolling into the outskirts of Page.  We decided to head straight to our first tour at Lower Antelope Canyon since the light was good and we didn't want to waste anytime just hanging out at the hotel.  We found the entrance parking lot and bought "Photographer Passes" at the booth.  They run about $65 per person and give you 2 hours in the slot canyon rather than the normal pass which gives you just one hour.  You then meet up with a guide who takes you through.

Lower Antelope Canyon

The narrow swirling Navajo Sandstone of Lower Antelope Canyon is just an incredible sight!  Everywhere you look is an interesting photo!  At about 50 feet below the desert surface, sunlight turns from orange to deep purples and air is cool.  It's a really nice place to spend a summer afternoon!  The main difference between the Upper and Lower Antelope Canyons are how they are shaped.  The upper canyon is wide at the base, where you walk.  The corridor gives visitors anywhere from 4 feet to about 15 feet to walk and is one constant elevation.  This means it's less physically demanding, hence more people.  The Lower canyon is wide up near the surface and becomes narrower near the base.  The path way in Lower is between 2 to 10 feet wide and has a number of near vertical metal steps you must navigate as you descend through the canyon.  The steps have guard rails to hang on to, but with a full load of camera gear and a backpack, it can be a challenge.  But it's nothing to be afraid of.  For example, my friend Stephen is in horrible shape.  Yet he was able to get through it with only some heavy breathing (sorry buddy! LOL).  Probably the most challenging part was the exit, where you have to climb a series of 3 near vertical steps/ladders and then hike up hill out of the canyon.  Stephen had to stop for a bit.  Something about not being able to feel his hands or face. Whatever.

Upper Antelope Canyon is just as beautiful, but in it's own way.

Upper Antelope Canyon

The most famous features of the Upper canyon are these beams of light.  But you have to get there for the mid-day tours to see them.  I believe it was the 12pm to 2pm tour we were on.  They also offer Photographers Passes.  I believe they were like $80 each.  By the end of the tour the beams were disappearing.  We hear other tourists who were just arriving at 2pm, asking where the beams were.  Too late... they were gone.  Just like Lower canyon the guides lead you, tells you about some history, the best places to shoot, etc.  The guides are all very friendly and knowledgeable.  At each open area where there is a light beam the guide will let the people who purchased photographer passes setup their tripods and get ready.  He (or she) will then throw some sand up into the beam of light.  Everyone snaps away and hopefully you get a good photo.  They are also kind enough to stop traffic both ways so no one enters the scene while everyone is shooting.  Our guide in the Upper canyon, Sonny, was even awesome enough to yell at some kids who were back tracking from another group and entered our scene.  Yeah, get'em!!

Sunset at Horseshoe Bend

After spending the afternoon shooting the slot canyons, we decided to head just a few minutes South of Page to the famous Horseshoe Bend.   Horseshoe Bend is a horseshoe shaped meander in the river and is about 5 miles South of the Glen Canyon Dam. Reaching the bend is a fairly easy 3/4 mile hike up and down a sandy trail. It's best to wear hiking boots or shoes because of the soft sand and loose rocks. And be sure to bring water. Once you reach the edge of the bend, use caution. There is no railing and it's a sheer 1500 foot drop to the Colorado River below, giving you enough free-fall time to fully ponder how you got yourself into this mess. But the view from this location is fantastic!  This location is totally free to visit.  There's a gravel parking lot just off the road to park in and the best time to shoot there is dusk because you're facing West.  I've seen a few sunrise photos take there.  They don't look bad, but the canyon has a lot of dark shadow during the morning hours.

By Wednesday we had completed 2 trips through Lower Antelope Canyon and one through the Upper and hit Horseshoe Bend a couple times.  We decided to head back 2 hours east on highway 161 to Monument Valley Utah.  Just the drive from Page to this location takes you through some of the most incredible terrain Id ever seen.  Make sure you fill up your gas tank before leaving Page.  There are no gas stations until you reach the town of Kayenta.  Running out of gas between the two places would be... not good.  At one point I looked out the window and saw what I thought was a bunch of little goats running near the road in the desert.  I re-focused and looked closer to see it was a wild dog pack, maybe 20 strong.  Probably not something you want to deal with in the dead of night.    

Monument Valley Highway

So, above is a location in Monument Valley known as Mile Marker 13 on US 163 Scenic.  This happens to be the same spot Forest Gump was running down in the movie when he stopped and said he was done running.  It's an often photographed spot, but I wanted to get the shot while there, since I may never return.  I'm really glad I did get this shot, I was really happy with how it came out.  Ideally I would have liked to have had a nice partly cloudy sky and the warm glow of a setting sun.  Instead we had these storms moving through.  Although I believe I would have rather had this weather than cloudless blue skies.  This is something I could work with!

With three days remaining in our trip and most the Page locations shot, we planned our final leg of this journey..... the Grand Canyon.

Grand Canyon Sunset

After roughly a 3 hour drive (we had to take a longer detour because hwy 89 South out of Page had been washed out in a recent storm) we arrived at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.  Words, nor photo's can fully describe the sight you're greeted with when you first roll up to the visitors center parking lot and see what's in front of you.  It's literally the biggest hole in the Earth I have ever seen in my life.  And a very beautiful one at that.  Staring into it, it's hard to comprehend how long it took to form.  We had one day at this location and got to spend a few hours shooting sunset and the dusk hours.  Just as we were finishing, a thunderstorm moved in and it started raining heavily.  We had planned on getting up and shooting sunrise before heading out.  But when we woke up the next morning, it was still pouring rain.  This is a location I could have spent a week at alone!  Guess I'll have to go back sometime.  We stayed at the Best Western Grand Canyon in Tusayan, just South of the South Rims park gates.  We called ahead before leaving Page to secure a room and they happen to have a one night rate (Friday) for $90.  I have a feeling this was a pretty cheap rate compared to normal.  This location is a Best Western "Premiere" and had lots of amenities, including a bowling alley on the first floor!  Yes, we went bowling.

We headed out early Saturday morning, driving South to Flagstaff Arizona.  From there we would turn East and have a straight shot home.  Well, a 9 hour straight shot.

The Big Bang

Located about 30 miles East of Flagstaff Arizona is this hidden gem.  About 50,000 years ago a meteor the size of a car struck the Earth traveling 26,000mph.  The result was this mile wide crater  which can be visited today.  This is one big hole in the ground!  If you look closely at the bottom right of the crater rim, you'll see the observation deck with 2 people standing on it.  They say this is one of the best preserved meteor craters in the world and has been used by NASA as a training location in the 1970's.  We had no idea it was even there.  As we drove down the road, we suddenly saw signs saying "Meteor Crater - Next Exit".  We had to see it and I'm glad we stopped.  Admission at the visitors center was $16 per person.  They have a gift shop which has all types of meteor and outer space related gifts and lots of historical items to look through.  Pretty cool!

We finally arrived home by Sunday evening, exhausted.  This is probably the most epic road trip I've taken to this point in my life.  We covered 3,300 miles over 7 days.  I shot around 1200 photo's using the Canon 5DmkII and the Canon 1DmkIV.  I only used 3 lenses the entire trip; the Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L, the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L and the Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L.  While both our camera's performed great in the blowing sand and occasional rain storm, they both needed a good cleaning once home.  I have a sensor cleaning kit and I'm pretty good at cleaning them, so I had everything back to new'ish withing a couple days.  It's taken me almost a month to get through all the images.  It was a lot of (fun) work taking this trip.  But the photo's and memories I returned home with made it all worth it.

Remember, never stop exploring.