Saturday, February 5, 2011

Escaping Winter ... With Winter? Red Rocks Revisited and a January Trip to the Colorado Plateau

Winter in the Washington, D.C., area can be a bit dreary--come mid-January, I'm typically ready to hit the road and escape the chill for a few days (all the while dreaming of a snowbird home on the Gulf coast). So it may come as something of a surprise that my first trip of 2011 took me not to a tropical destination but instead to the high desert country of the Colorado Plateau.

Of all the places I've traveled, the red rock deserts of southern Utah and western Colorado left me the most breathless (and not due to the altitude, mind you).  Beth and I visited southern Utah for the first time last spring with a short weekend holiday to Goblin Valley and a visit to Arches National Park, then returned in the fall to take in two of the other "great circle" national parks in Bryce Canyon and Zion.  As beautiful as the parks were, I wanted to see them again with some snow on the ground in the midst of winter.  Too, all of these magnificent parks have come a long way since the days of Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire and can be quite crowded in the peak spring and fall seasons, but winter can be a magnificent, near-solitary experience.

As Beth wasn't able to come along, I didn't want to tackle the longer trip to Bryce Canyon (necessitating a drive up from Vegas for United flies like me--though SkyWest has now resumed one daily flight from LAX to St. George, Utah, which would make it a much nicer trip).  So I decided on a flight to Grand Junction, Colorado, and a fairly short drive down to the Moab, Utah, area, to take in Arches in winter, along with visits to Canyonlands National Park and finally a stop at the Colorado National Monument.

My trip down from Grand Junction to Moab gave me the chance to take Scenic Byway 128, a wonderful stretch of highway that runs along the Colorado River.  (When Beth and I visited Arches last spring, we took the more-modern US 191 down from Interstate 70, as we were coming from the west after our trip to Goblin Valley.)  My flight timing and the drive's duration meant I'd have only one real stop for the evening's "golden hour" of sunset light, and I'd chosen the Fisher Towers for my first real photographic opportunity of the trip.

In his Photographing the Southwest, Laurent Martres calls the Fisher Towers the "reddest rocks you'll find at sunset."  Although I personally think Red Canyon near Bryce takes that honor, I have to say that he's not far off the mark with respect to the Fisher Towers, either.

There's a spot Laurent describes where you can climb down from one of the many pull-outs along SB 128 to the Colorado River and capture the Fisher Towers, La Sal Mountains, and the Colorado River all in one shot.  It took me several different stops and a bit of walking around before I found the exact spot he described.  I'll let the curious buy Mr. Matrtres book (which is fantastic, along with his subsequent volumes covering Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona), but it is as he described quite a steep, slick hike down through the brush and out to a rock perched in the river itself.

Winter is definitely a good time to photograph the Fisher Towers with the added interest of snow white dusted across the intense reds that draw the human eye like no other color can--but timing is still tricky. The best time would be early winter, after a bit of snow but before the Colorado has iced over (as in my photo above, an icy river doesn't yield the kind of stunning reflection you can capture in slightly warmer weather).  You need to take this shot an hour or more before sunset, as the river itself will quickly fall completely into shadows well before the Fisher Towers are at their prime red glow.  A vertical crop on a decent medium telephoto would work quite well when the river offers up a reflection--note I used a horizontal and cropped out most of the river here given there's only so much interest to be had in the river's ice.

Another benefit of wintertime for the photographer is that the work day is shorter; during our spring trip, Beth and I were up before 5:00 am and into the field before 6:30, and though we could have spent the hours of harsh mid-day light catching a cat-nap in the car, catching both dawn and dusk meant putting in a 12-14 hour "day."  During the winter, sunrise comes as late as 7:30 and sunset as early as 5:00--and the angle of the sun is steeper, extending the "golden hour" and helping give even the middle of the day some okay photographic conditions.

Day one under my belt, I checked into my hotel for the night, ready to tackle the photographer's workday of o'dark-thirty the following morning after a stop at Zax, a Moab restaurant specializing in pizza and with a nice selection of local brews on tap, Mormon tastes in alcohol and teetotaling notwithstanding.  Beth and I stopped there last spring and barely squeezed in ahead of a tour bus--in the midst of winter, I had the place nearly to myself.

As for the weather? Despite all the snow in my photographs, it was actually significantly warmer 4000-feet up on the Colorado Plateau than in D.C. during my trip, with daytime highs near 40 (about 20 degrees higher than back home). Guess I did escape winter for a few short hours after all.

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