Story & photos by Jerry Ginsberg
Previously, we discussed the northern half of the Four Corners region. That included the most worthwhile photo highlights found in Utah and Colorado. The other half of the Grand Circle tour includes New Mexico and Arizona.
To close the loop (ouch!) on this route let’s now explore those great states of the desert Southwest. Both admitted to the Union in 1912, these two seem almost identical in size and shape, but possess very different topography and the singular scenery that exerts its powerful magnetism on us.
Continuing in the clockwise circle that brought us through Utah and Colorado, let’s cross into northern New Mexico.
Traveling roughly from north to south, we can arrange a logical route something like this:
Not far south of Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve is Taos, New Mexico. The tiny town of Taos has two time honored photo icons, both made famous by none other than legendary Ansel Adams. His seminal images of the San Francisco de Asis church in Ranchos de Taos and the centuries old Taos Pueblo leave us today with just our own comparatively poor efforts.
The Taos Pueblo has been continuously occupied for centuries with its original construction possibly dating back as far as a thousand years. Try to enter the pueblo as early in the morning as possible for the best light. Check the website for visiting hours, fees and any photography restrictions.
New Mexico also contains several early Native American sites that are now units of the National Park System. Perhaps the best of these are surrounding the state’s capital Santa Fe.
Among them are:
Chaco Culture National Historic Park is certainly the biggest of the many surviving sites. This special place offers many great structures along a short loop road. Famed Pueblo Benito has some terrific classic compositions. Don’t miss Chetro Ketl and Casa Rinconada as well. Early morning light can work very well in Chaco. If you are not camping onsite, I suggest arriving at least an hour before sunrise to be in position early for the best light. Check for gate opening hours and allow at least 20-30 minutes to drive to Chaco from the paved highway.
Aztec Ruins National Monument is a small, but well preserved and very interesting site with a variety of original and reconstructed buildings. Although administered jointly with Chaco, Aztec Ruins is farther north and hard against the Colorado state line.
Bandelier National Monument is a fascinating place that offers many photo opportunities. Starting from the visitor center are trails running uphill along both sides of the canyon. Taking the trail opposite the photogenic niche at the top and packing a long lens will enable you to capture the best composition. Late afternoon light is the most favorable.
Pecos National Historic Park is a fascinating gem of a well preserved Native American site. Paved walkways make it easy. Late light can be good; make sure to check closing hours.
New Mexico’s historic capital Santa Fe was founded over four centuries ago under the Spanish colonial regime. The Palace of the Governors, once the Capitol, is the highlight of the town’s welcoming central plaza. Several charming streets radiate from here. Don’t miss the Loretto chapel, small, but a real gem.
Albuquerque is New Mexico’s largest city, if not the easiest one to spell. While the center of this modern city doesn’t offer much in the way of photography, its edges do have a few interesting areas.
- Old Town Albuquerque is historic and colorful.
- The annual Albuquerque balloon festival is held each October. It’s exciting and challenging to photograph this dramatic event. Trying to maintain separation between the brightly colored balloons is fun, but not always easy.
On the city’s western edge you’ll find often overlooked Petroglyph National Monument. This treasure trove of ancient Native American rock art is best photographed in the soft, warm rays of early morning light.
South of Albuquerque between Socorro and Alamogordo lies the sprawling Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, famed for its bird life and great bird photography. Thousands of sandhill cranes and snow geese often spend the winter here.
A bit further on, just past Alamogordo, we find White Sands, perhaps my very favorite national monument. Here the great natural gypsum deposit has been formed by time and the elements into a seemingly endless expanse of rippled dunes.
- As with most all such dune photography, images made when the sun is very close to the horizon will allow us to capture the contrast within the ripples. Once the sun rises for about 30-40 minutes, most of that important contrast is lost.
- With some luck, you might be able to recruit a NPS ranger to admit you before dawn – for a fee. This will enable you to capture the best light. Scout your location/s the day before. (Hint – The further away from the unpaved gypsum track that you roam, the fewer the footprints in the sands.
Out last stop in the far south of New Mexico close to Texas is possibly the jewel of this desert state and its only national park, Carlsbad Caverns. Descending into the caves via the original natural entrance or the quick elevator ride from the visitor center offers a few choices. Either wander around the Big Room on your own with the ability to use your tripod in the very low light or buy tickets for one or more of the ranger guided tours on which you will be restricted to handheld shooting at slow shutter speeds.
Eventually crossing into the fourth and last state of the Grand Circle, Arizona opens up yet another whole world of natural wonders. Our forty-eighth state includes three spectacular national parks and several national monuments. Premier among these is one of the great wonders of the world, the Grand Canyon. We can enjoy this grandest of all canyons from at least three very different viewpoints.
- The popular and sometimes crowded South Rim with its long road accessing many wonderful viewpoints (my favorite is Powell Point) and entry to trails below the rim.
- The corresponding and much more laid back North Rim with its very different configuration and views is about a thousand feet higher and measurably cooler. The only paved road to the North Rim is generally closed from mid-October to early May. Don’t miss Point Imperial (sunrise & morning), Cape Royal (late afternoon & early evening) and Bright Angel Point (both early and late light).
Also on the North Rim is the singular and very remote Toroweep Point. Contact me for details if this is on your bucket list.
But the very best way to understand and appreciate the Grand Canyon is via Door #3; a rafting trip down the Colorado River! This is, truly, the never-to-be-forgotten adventure of a lifetime. Days of alternating calm waters and turbulent rapids, putting in at such unique landmarks as Nankoweep and Elves Chasm will leave you with terrific memories and hopefully, many outstanding images.
Arizona’s two other national parks are Saguaro with its two separate sections chock full of elegant cacti flanking both sides of sprawling Tucson and fascinating Petrified Forest with its wide variety of fossilized trees and long extinct creatures near Holbrook. That small town is worth a stop just to see the nostalgic Wigwam Motel along historic Route 66.
Some of the often overlooked highlights of the Grand Canyon State are:
- Canyon de Chelley National Monument is reached through the Navajo Reservation town of Chinle. Definitely worth a couple of days, this expansive red rock landmark is actually part of the Navajo Nation with limited access granted to the National Park Service. Drive both forks of the rim road and hike the permitted trails, especially the one to White House Ruin, best in mid-late afternoon light. Touristy group tours are available, but are not well suited to photography.
- Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site near Genado is a very well preserved 19th century outpost worth a brief visit, especially for history buffs. While the owner’s home has become a museum, the store itself still operates as a genuine trading post.
The popular town of Page, AZ is the jumping off point for excursions on Lake Powell and just a stone’s throw from the Utah state line. Page is slot canyon central. Right on the edge of town you’ll find both Upper (the “Corkscrew”) and Lower Antelope Canyons. Once upon a time, these wonderful sculptures in sandstone were visited mostly by a small group of hardy professional photographers. On my first visit here many years ago, we had to lower the packs and tripods down on ropes and venture into the semi-dark unknown. It was all very catch-as-catch-can. Those early images created here within the Earth have introduced the uniquely exotic and sensuous rock forms to the world. The inevitable result is that both locations have now become well organized and commercialized tourist enterprises operated by local Navajo on whose lands these very special cracks in the Earth’s top layer are found. Shinnying down a rope has been replaced by walking on a custom made flight of steel stairs and tricked-out pick-ups quickly ferry tourists through miles of sand where once only a few hardy hikers trod. That said, it’s still worth the effort to search out singular compositions in these special places. You can only visit Antelope Canyon with an authorized Navajo guide or tour. Special photography groups are offered–book well in advance!
While visiting Page, take the very short drive out to the Horseshoe Bend of the Colorado River. Make sure to bring your widest lens. A 16mm (on full frame) should be about right. There’s a per-vehicle fee to park and visit the overlook.
From Page, it’s a straight shot to drive back to Las Vegas airport.
But being so close, it’s tempting to drive north from Page across the Glen Canyon Dam back into Utah. From here, it’s not far through the tiny hamlet of Bad Water to Alstom Point with its sweeping view overlooking Gunfight Butte and Lake Powell. Further on up Rt. 89, is the turnoff into House Rock Road toward the less visited and still fairly wild Buckskin Gulch slot canyon, access to Paria Canyon and one of the most special places in all the Southwest, Coyote Buttes and the now famous Wave (permit required).
See? I told you it was a great big circle!
Most of the locations above offer a wide variety of lodging and dining options. Towns at or near these photo-worthy sites are very tourist friendly. The Grand Canyon is the only one of the national parks of New Mexico and Arizona with lodging inside its boundaries. Reserve early!
With very few exceptions, the places mentioned above can be successfully toured with a standard passenger car. Make sure that your tires are in good shape.
For some spots on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon such as Toroweep and Point Sublime, a high clearance vehicle is recommended.
It is unlikely that you will be allowed to enter the unpaved route through Canyon de Chelley itself with your own vehicle. If you are, do not attempt it without a good SUV equipped with 4 wheel drive, high clearance and off-road tires.
Jerry Ginsberg is a widely published photographer whose landscape, Nature and travel images have graced the covers pages of hundreds of books, magazines and travel catalogs. He is the only person to have photographed each and every one of America’s National Parks with medium format cameras. He has been awarded Artist Residencies in several National Parks and his works have been exhibited from coast to coast and have received numerous awards in competition. Jerry’s photographic archive spans virtually all of both North and South America.
More of Ginsberg’s images are on display at www.JerryGinsberg.com
Or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org