The Moonlight Chronicles: Utah Adventure

Mid-April of this year, I was sitting with Michael Benari in Simon’s Cafe—read: “best cafe in Cambridge”—a week before a trip to Bryce Canyon and Zion national parks with my son, Noah. Michael is not only a good friend, mentor, and source of inspiration, he’s also a highly accomplished fine art photographer and visual artist.

As we sipped our coffee, Michael began telling me about a bicycle excursion he’d taken to Bryce Canyon a number of years ago during a full moon. He recalled how the moonlight illuminating the hoodoos was one of the most astounding, otherworldly experiences of his life. (Hoodoos are tall, thin, fancifully-shaped spires of rock formed by rock deposition, uplift, erosion, and weather. While hoodoos can be found in several locations on the Colorado Plateau and Northern Great Plains, Bryce has an exceptional collection formed over the course of 50 million years. The hoodoos “sprout” from an amphitheater measuring 12 miles long by 3 miles wide and 800-foot deep. Read more about hoodoos here.

(Nikon D850 + NIKKOR 24-70mm/f2.8)

After Michael described his incredible trip, I pulled out my phone and looked at a moon phase app. I couldn’t believe our good fortune—there would be a full moon on the day Noah and I arrived! Since we didn’t want to be clambering alone in the dark in a place we’d never visited before, I took a long shot at finding a photo guide. And it paid off. Action Photo Tours, not only had a guide available, but owner David Swindler was able to plan a series of short trips for us: Bryce Canyon sunset/moonrise on the night of the full moon,  Zion (Canyon Overlook) the next morning for a moonset/sunrise, and Lake Powell (Alstrom Point) that evening for a sunset/moonrise.

So the stars were lining up, literally—right time, right place, and right logistics to do something a bit different. Previously, I figured I’d be taking landscapes, close-ups of textures, and sunsets in black and white. But the moon!

After flying into Las Vegas, Noah and I drove to Kanab, Utah. We then met Action Tour’s Johnny Adolpshon, an excellent landscape photographer and former wildland fire fighter, ski patroller, and forestry worker who intimately knows the terrain. For excursions, he also drives a monster Chevy Suburban truck that handles the deep pothole-riddled ride to Lake Powell with aplomb.

Read on to see photos from the trip. If you’re in a hurry and want to get right to the images, here are the links to the galleries: BryceZion |  Kanab to Lake PowellLake Powell

Before diving into the trip log and photos, I want to thank my very patient travel partner, Noah. Though not a photographer himself, he’d patiently smile and nod his head every time I said, “just one more shot,” knowing that many “one more shots” would be coming as the trip progressed. Perhaps traveling with a photographer is the ultimate test of unconditional love.

But back to the adventure.

 

 

 

BRYCE CANYON
While we waited for the sun to set and the moon to rise, we walked around the amphitheater, looking for interesting hoodoo photo opps. What attracted my eye was the magical nature of the landforms, as if they grew from Tolkien’s Middle Earth. I shot with the idea of saturating the colors and adding a glow when I sat down to process the images, as I did in this photo.

(Nikon D850 + NIKKOR 24-70mm/f2.8)

I also found a number of interesting ground-level subjects that begged for close-ups with my macro lens. I tend to see animals in just about all natural forms, such as this one, which I call the “firebird.”

(Nikon D850 + Micro NIKKOR 105mm/f2.8)

The weather cooperated perfectly, and the moon rose against the backdrop of a clear, cloudless sky. Although faint traces of color remained as the moon rose, I was thinking in black and white from the get-go.

(Nikon D850 + NIKKOR 70-200mm/f4.0)

The moonlight hitting the hoodoos was indeed surreal, just as Michael had described it. (I emailed him a quick iPhone 10 XS shot, and he confirmed that I’d captured the landscape he’d seen years earlier.)

The small patches of snow, glistening and bright white, stood starkly contrasted with the amphitheater and its inhabitants. I exposed for the snow patches and planned to pull the details out of the shadows during post processing.

(Nikon D850 + NIKKOR 24-70mm/f2.8)

I figured that these two shots, if they turned out the way I hoped, would be worth the price of admission. Although I would have been satisfied if the rest of the trip were a photographic bust, it wasn’t.

ZION, CANYON OVERLOOK TRAIL
At 4:30 a.m. the next morning, we were on our way to the Canyon Overlook trailhead. I was glad that our guide told us to bring headlamps for the easy, but dark, half-mile hike up to the top of the trail. The moon was setting quickly as we reached the overlook. I chose to process the image in black and white to capture the balance point in the diurnal ritual that plays out every day, oblivious to the humans watching the scene.

(Nikon D850 + NIKKOR 24-70mm/f2.8)

As the sun rose behind us, the canyon was bathed in delicious soft light. Minute by minute, the valley below awoke as forms took shape and color. It was almost as if the canyon were readying itself for the day’s business.

(Nikon D850 + NIKKOR 20mm/f1.8)

Behind us, East Temple, which towers 2,200 feet over the canyon floor, came to life as the sun dappled its massive rock walls.

(Nikon D850 + NIKKOR 20mm/f1.8)

And to the right, the canyon’s rock walls offered rich textures dotted with pockets of plant life—reminders that with good roots, life goes on even under the most seemingly hostile circumstances.

(Nikon D850 + NIKKOR 70-200mm/f2.8)

As always, I looked down (as well as across) and saw plenty of opportunities to swap out my telephoto and wide angle lenses for my trusty macro lens.

(Nikon D850 + Micro NIKKOR 105mm/f2.8)

By the time we hiked back down to the parking area, the light was harsh and strong. Since we were hungry and tired from our early start, there was only one thing to do: head to Houston’s Trail End Restaurant in Kanab for a belt-busting breakfast of eggs, pancakes, waffles, hashed browns and more, followed by a food-induced nap. Later that afternoon, Johnny picked us up for our final sunset/moonrise excursion: Lake Powell.

LAKE POWELL, ALSTROM POINT
The distance from Kanab to Alstrom Point is only 82 miles via Highway 89, but the very rough roads make it a two-plus hour trip (best not to try this in a passenger vehicle with low clearance). Along the way, we stopped now and then to photograph the unusual terrain, with its formations of light grey bentonite clay (weathered volcanic ash) and colorful, hematite-rich earth. The dreamy quality of the bentonite lent itself to a fantasy-like “Game of Thrones” treatment, which I applied during post processing.

(Nikon D850 + NIKKOR 70-200mm/f4.0)

(Nikon D850 + NIKKOR 70-200mm/f4.0)

By the time we reached Alstrom Point, the sun was beginning to set. The sky was turning gorgeous shades of pink and magenta. From our vantage point, we were treated to a panoramic view that I can only describe as prehistoric—it was easy to imagine a T-Rex standing at the edge of the cliff and roaring at his kingdom below.

(Nikon D850 + NIKKOR 20mm/f1.8)

The remains of the day evaporated. We noticed a faint orange crescent glow over the mesa to the east, the beginning of the moonrise. What transpired next was the most astonishing natural event I’ve ever witnessed. The crescent shape rapidly morphed into an intense orb that shot up over the horizon as if it were pulled through the heavens by an invisible string.

As the moon rose, it cast a glow on the shimmering water below. I was torn between watching the lunar drama unfold and managing the settings in my camera, separately exposing for the water and the moon in the hopes of capturing one good shot. Even if I didn’t, the opportunity to share that jaw-dropping experience with Noah was a great moment in our relationship. Of the many dozens of images I took that unforgettable evening, here are my picks, same scene, different crops and treatments.

(Nikon D850 + NIKKOR 24-70mm/f2.8)

(Nikon D850 + NIKKOR 24-70mm/f2.8)

Once again, I can’t express enough gratitude to Johnny for his great guidance, navigation skills, and comprehensive knowledge of the land—it was great not having to worry about the logistics or driving off a cliff.

ZION NATIONAL PARK
The next day, we bid Johnny goodbye and headed down to Springdale, Utah, the most convenient base for exploring Zion and the surrounding canyons. A very well-managed shuttle service with highly entertaining, enthusiastic, and informative drivers takes you to hop-on/hop-off stops throughout the park, which solves the problem of massive congestion and parking in such a popular national treasure. We stayed at, and highly recommend, the Bumbleberry Inn. (Truth be told, we had lots of options. But we liked the name of the lodging and the fact that was family-owned.)

Here are some images from several days of exploring the main park and its environs (Kolob and Wildcat canyons). Since a number of trails were closed due to rockslides and other problems, we pretty much stayed on the main trails.

The Watchman
The Watchman is one of the most iconic and often photographed mountains in Zion. It ‘s easily captured from Canyon Junction Bridge, which is right on the shuttle bus line. I loved how the banks of the Virgin River created natural lines that lead the eye to the magnificent mountain. Fortunately, most of the crowds on the bridge dispersed when it was clear that there would be no dramatic blasts of color. But a handful of tripods remained until the last rays of light disappeared. Photographers learn (often the hard way, as I did) that the show is over only when the lights go out; there’s nothing more frustrating than packing up your gear just as a surprise burst of color appears and vanishes before you have time to regroup and shoot. Here’s my interpretation of the scene.

(Nikon D850 + NIKKOR 24-70mm/f2.8)

Kolob Canyon
Located 40 miles from Springdale and the main section of the park, Kolob is a stretch of steep “finger canyons” and beautiful terrain, with hikes ranging from easy to arduous. A five-mile paved road makes for a gorgeous tour along the ridgeline and access to the trailheads. The day we visited, the weather was iffy—intermittent thundershowers and lots of mud—so we didn’t encounter many other travelers. Here are two of my favorite shots:

(Nikon D850 + NIKKOR 24-70mm/f2.8)

Wildcat Canyon
Located in the Kolob Terrace part of Zion about 30 miles from the southern entrance to the park, Wildcat Canyon is by far my favorite part of the park (at least, on this trip). The six-mile canyon is primarily a connector to other trails, rather than a destination. But the views are spectacular, and the trails typically aren’t crowded. We visited twice: once in the rain, and once under clearer skies, and only saw a handful of people.

(Nikon D850 + NIKKOR 70-200mm/f4.0)

In addition to capturing the canyon’s raw, pristine beauty, I was particularly interested in the interplay of sun and clouds. I found numerous opportunities to capture evocative scenes from different elevations.

(Nikon D850 + NIKKOR 70-200mm/f4.0)

(Nikon D850 + NIKKOR 70-200mm/f4.0)

We chose the Northgate Peaks trail on the recommendation of a ranger at the Zion visitor center. Good choice. The wooded terrain was different from the other areas we visited during our trip. We’d planned to hike more trails, but discretion kicked in as the sky darkened and peals of thunder became more frequent. Downed trees from earlier lightning strikes didn’t give us confidence, either. After we turned around and headed to the parking lot, the dark clouds gave way to a bright, sunny sky. But we’d had a good taste of the area and added Wildcat to our list of great places to return to and explore.

(Nikon D850 + NIKKOR 20mm/f1.8)

Before leaving the trail, I suggested that we stop and close our eyes for a moment so we could just focus on the wind whooshing through the trees. Feel it, hear it, let it take us aloft long after we’d returned home. What better way to encode the trip in our minds and senses?

CONCRETE BASINS, STEEL, AND GLASS MOUNTAINS
All good trips must come to an end, and I always find it jarring to go from intense natural beauty and unfettered 360-degree visibility back to a major metropolis like New York, where Noah lives. But it didn’t take long to snap back into urban mode, and I took advantage of a couple of days in the city to do street photography and create components for my abstract pieces.

Several times I paused in Grand Central Station and on the streets, watching life careen by at warp speed. I closed my eyes and conjured up the sound of the wind at Wildcat.

Whoosh….

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