Southwestern Canyons - Utah, Arizona
Day 1-2: Zion National Park
Christmas Day. We woke up in the morning to a marvelous sight, the amazing red canyon peaks were covered in snow. Not that the sight of the canyons itself weren’t magnificent enough, but having white powder dusted over its ridges just made it even more surreal.
We drove right in to the park wanting to savor the clean white snow as much as we can before the sun melt them down. With mythical names like Courts of the Patriarch, The Great White Throne, Angel’s Landing, The Watchman, Temple of Sinawava, this place beckons to have stories and legends be told of it. In Mormon canon, The word Zion itself implies a place high up close to the heavens, and this place surely deserves that name.
Visiting the park in winter limits the amount of daylight you have, but it also brings a lot of pleasant upsides. The snow for one, visitors are less so you have more of the park to yourself, cooler temperature while hiking, sunset comes earlier.
For the first day we went up to Angel’s Landing trail, a 4.5 mile round trip hike straight up one of the peaks with a lot of great vantage points to the valley. The terminus of the trail is the very steep climb to Angel’s Landing point; we tried climbing up the chains, but without proper cleats and the icy steps, decided that it was too precarious to do.
Coming back down, we drove up Mt. Carmel Highway and the historic tunnel to Canyon Observation Point. Though it was extremely overcast, we still get a great view of the valley covered in white snow.
Another advantage of travelling in the winter, is that sunset comes at a decent time. So you have just enough time to grab dinner, come back for some night shots, and back before bedtime. Though there were a sliver of a moon in the sky, it was dark enough to see the stars; and this was probably one of the clearest view of the night sky I’ve ever seen.
On our second day, we rented gear from the Zion Adventure Company to do the Narrows bottom-up hike. The Narrows is the signature hike in the park, where the trail ends and you have to wade through 46F (6 degree Celsius) water that could come up waist high. Our gear included a dry suit, neoprene socks, boots and they were able to keep us pretty protected from the elements during the hike.
The full hike itself will take around 6-hours round trip, starting from the Riverwalk Trail at the end of the valley, but in the interest of time we went up only to the beginning of Wall Street. I wouldn’t say the hike is strenuous, but does involve a healthy amount of skipping rocks and wading through some decent currents. If you’re bringing a camera, a dry bag is highly recommended.
The views in the Narrows itself is exceptional, tall canyon walls with varying colors that have been carved by the flow of the Virgin River.
Before heading out of the park, we stopped at Canyon Junction to see the sun set over by the Watchman. The bridge at the junction, or the trail down below it gives an excellent vantage point; and I just love looking at this mountain. The vibrant sharp red peak is such a great contrast to the round white granite top of Half Dome in Yosemite.
Afterwards, we drove a couple hours straight to Page, Arizona
Day 3: Lower Antelope Canyon, Horseshoe Bend
There’s only two reasons for any tourists to come to Page, AZ: Antelope Canyons and Horseshoe Bend. Both of which are probably on the most-photographed-spots list, mostly because of how accessible they are.
There’s actually two Antelope Canyons, lower and upper. The Upper Canyons is the more known one because how accessible it is, and the sun beams that passes through the slot canyons in high summer. But it’s winter now and the sun doesn’t come up high enough to shine through the canyon.
Lower Antelope Canyon is less known because until recently it was a little bit harder to get into, there are staircases now with two tour operators that would guide you through it. Yes, you have to use tour guides since both canyons are in the Navajo nation reservation and they limit the access to these canyons.
As beautiful and surreal they are, these canyons are a VERY popular tourist attraction. They will herd you like cattle through the narrow passage. Photographers have to pay a different permit that would let you stay slightly longer, tripods are required. It’s very much shoot-and-go through the whole thing, and sort of left me kind of weary and jaded by the experience.
Yeah I got some wonderful shots, and no I don’t regret going there, but makes you wonder what’s the worth of any pictures/posters made from this place since it’s so accessible and reproducible.
Hence, us deciding to skip Upper Antelope Canyon (PS: night tours here will cost you $150 a person), to stop by Horseshoe Bend for sunset and head up to Bryce Canyon instead. To get to Horseshoe Bend, you have to walk up a sandy ¾ mile trail that ends at literally the edge of the cliff. No guardrails, no concrete overlook point. Just a rocky edge, you, and a 1000ft drop down the cliff. And it’s packed with people. You have to be careful with where you place your tripods and where you stand; no picture is worth risking your gear, much less yourself.
It is stunning though.
Day 4: Bryce Canyon National Park
“It’s a hell of a place to lose a cow” - Ebenezer Bryce
On the last minute, we decided to leave Page and spend the night near Bryce Canyon National Park instead. So that we could come into the park at first light to catch the sunrise. We stayed at this nice little family-run inn, Bryce Canyon Pines Motel, the place was very cozy and cabin-like; the owners were having their holiday party at the hotel when we checked in.
The hoodoos amphitheater at Bryce is the main attraction in this park, and the beginning of the larger geological feature that is collectively called “The Grand Staircase” that stretches from here down to Grand Canyons. Countless millennia of erosion carves this landscape, and through a continuous cycle of freezing and cracking they form the distinctive “hoodoos”. These hoodoos are scatterred all over the park, but none more concentrated in the main amphitheater.
There’s plenty of vantage point to see them (Sunrise Point, Sunset Point, Bryce Point), we saw the sunrise from Inspiration Point that gives a sweeping view of the canyon. And as the sun rises, the first rays lights up the top of the hoodoos like a matchstick. The views were amazing, but it was friggin cold (3-6F when we got there).
After sunrise, we strolled down Navajo Trail from Sunset Point to get a closer look at the hoodoos. Once you get closer to them, you start to get a better appreciation of the sheer size of this natural wonder.
From the trail you can also see “Thor’s Hammer,” a particularly recognizable hoodoo because of its hammer-like shape. I tried lifting it, but I wasn’t worthy enough.
After a short drive-around, we drove back to Las Vegas after to catch our flight the next morning, wish we had more time to do hikes around Bryce Canyon. Going back, we took the more scenic route back through Mt. Carmel highway and Zion, getting a last look at the red canyons… and apparently, some bison.
Camera used: Fujifilm X-E1
Lens used: Fujinon XF 10-24mm F/4 OIS for all but the last picture. The wide angle worked out perfect for the sweeping vistas and narrow canyons.
Zion Lodging: La Quinta Inn, Springdale
Gear Rental: Zion Adventure Company
Post-hike meal: Ribeye at Wildcat Willie’s
Best photo spot - Zion 1: Angel’s Landing Trail, before the turn-in to the canyon
Best photo spot - Zion 2: Bridge at Canyon Junction
Lower Antelope Canyon tour: Dixie Ellis’ tour, we actually entered with Ken’s Tour but separated ourselves since we were having a bad time with the tour guide. Armando from Billie Dixon’s picked us up on his route and showed us all the great photo spots. Make sure you reserve ahead of time to avoid the line.
Upper Antelope Canyon: initially signed up with Navajo Tours for the night photography, but it would’ve cost us $150/person.
Best photo spot - Lower Antelope Canyon: passed the halfway point where the path opens up more and the sun lights the walls to a warm glow
Bryce Canyon Lodging: Bryce Canyon Pines, a nice family-owned inn with a restaurant on site.
Best photo spot - Bryce: Inspiration point, clear vantage point of the amphitheater and surrounding lands
FREEBIE: Antelope Canyon Mobile Wallpaper (Click Here)