Monday morning came early. A chill wind gusted outside my tent, and I sunk a little deeper into my sleeping bag. I knew it was pointless to try falling back to sleep now. The sunrise would come soon, and I’d be late for the shoot at Mesa Arch if I lay here much longer. My conscience eventually won, so I unzipped the tent to greet my first surprise of the day.
“Snow!” I exclaimed to no one in particular. A half-inch of it covered the ground, and the soggy sky threatened to dump more of it. Dark clouds blanketed everything from horizon to horizon, and I knew the sunrise would be a bust. I contemplated abandoning the shoot, but I knew from experience that unpleasant conditions can yield intriguing photographs. I pulled on my warmest layers and grabbed my camera to go check things out.
Well, just as I predicted, the sunrise at Mesa Arch was obliterated by heavy clouds and I was denied my postcard photo. Major bummer. I really wanted that shot. I scouted a few angles and took some practice shots not knowing if I would ever be back. A couple other amateur photographers shivered in the cold wind waiting for the sky to break. I bid them good luck, packed up my camera, and proceeded to the business of getting on with the rest of my day. I was determined not to let the lousy weather spoil my vacation.
Back in the car, I consulted the guidebook and decided on a short hike around Aztec Butte, a scenic sandstone mound where the dwellings of the area’s earliest settlers could be found. Despite the blustery weather, I had a delightful time hiking around the butte and checking out the ancient granaries built by the primitive Anasazi people. The Anasazi reportedly occupied much of what is now Canyonlands, particularly in the canyon bottoms where water was more prominent. They frequently made trips to the mesas where they could gather food in greater abundance, and there is still much evidence of their existence in the Island in the Sky district.
I wandered around Aztec Butte for most of the morning, then decided to get in the car and head over to nearby Arches National Park for the remainder of the afternoon. With any luck, I hoped the sky might clear a bit to attempt a sunset shoot at world-famous Delicate Arch.
On the way, I stopped at the excellent Shafer Canyon Overlook to take in the views. From here, an incredible cliffside jeep road leads travelers into the depths of the canyon. This was once a trail used by cattlemen Frank and John Schafer, who built it in the early 1900s to move stock to additional pastures (the “c” in their name was later dropped by mapmakers). Uranium prospectors upgraded the trail to a four-wheel drive road during the 1950’s so they could reach their claims at the base of the cliffs.
At Arches NP, I spent most of the afternoon taking in the sights from the one-mile foot path along Park Avenue where red sandstone monoliths tower above the desert floor like stately skyscrapers. The most prominent of these were once cohesive fins of Entrada sandstone, gradually chiseled into their present forms by the unrelenting forces of nature. The mid-afternoon light was less than ideal for photography, but I tried to make the most of it by shooting a few HDR exposures.
After the hike I jumped back in the car and continued through the park, stopping here and there at the many roadside attractions, including Balanced Rock and The Windows. Despite the potentially photogenic landscape features, the sun remained obscured behind mostly cloudy skies. “Damn you, Sun!” I cursed. I was becoming disenchanted by its refusal to provide me with the great photo ops I had come here for.
It was beginning to look as though the sunset shoot at Delicate Arch would pretty much turn out to be a repeat of this morning’s disappointing episode at Mesa Arch. “I might as well hike up there anyway,” I thought to myself. “What have I got to lose?”
Upon reaching Delicate Arch, I was surprised to encounter a small gathering of photographers waiting out the sunset. In these overcast shooting conditions, I figured they would have all gone home. I settled in among them and began to set up my tripod. In the flat light, the famous arch was utterly lacking in the kind of sparkling personality it normally portrays in all of its famous postcards.
I looked around at the other weary photographers who had spent the past few hours shivering here in the cold, patiently awaiting a glimpse of perfect sunlight to trigger their cameras’ shutter releases and capture that elusive, magical shot. Judging by their expressions, that moment had yet to come. All of a sudden everyone’s spirits were rallied when one outspoken photographer cheerily announced, “Here it comes!”
I looked to the West and saw the sun’s pink rays slowly beginning to bleed through the thick clouds. At once the air was filled with the familiar sound of camera shutters rattling off shots like machine guns spewing artillery rounds. The lower the sun sank, the more intense the colors became. Clouds that had been bland and gray only a few moments before now became a canvas upon which the sun painted intense hues of pink and orange.
The positive energy among the group was palpable. “Wow! Lucky us!” exclaimed the outspoken guy. He was right. This was a special moment, and we all knew it. The arch glowed an intense pink to match the sky, and just as suddenly as it began, it was over. The sun disappeared below the horizon and the colors vanished.
As we hiked back to our cars in the dark, my mind began to process the day’s events. Following the theme of the first two days of this trip, today had certainly been a day of ups and downs. The spectacular sunset had been a surprise ending to a seemingly hopeless day of shooting. It was enough to renew my enthusiasm, and I decided to get up tomorrow morning for a second try at Mesa Arch. I couldn’t get skunked two days in a row, could I?
Next time: Stay tuned to see how it went at the Mesa Arch sunrise shoot. And, desperate times call for desperate measures. More to come!
- Arches National Park (speedycupcake.com)