These days, whenever I think of the innumerable terrific photo destinations throughout our county, especially the great Southwest, my reaction has become, “Wait until next year.” With travel planning now stuck in limbo waiting out the coronavirus, it doesn’t hurt to catalog some of the places that await us when we are once again free to roam around in search of great places and great images. High on that list are the lands of the Diné Bikéyah or Navajo Nation.
At over 27,000 square miles in Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah, this sprawling tract is home to about 180,000 Native Americans. Tragically, they have been hit very hard by the coronavirus. As a result, the reservation has been locked down and prohibiting visitors for some time with an end not yet in sight.
Looking forward to brighter days, let’s take stock of some of the region’s visual highlights.
Standing high above the Utah desert, eye-catching Sixshooter Peak is the calling card of the Needles section in Canyonlands National Park.
Story & photos by Jerry Ginsberg
In only one place in all of America do four states come together. The perfect right-angled corners of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah meet at one spot in the desert of the great Southwest. That spot has become quite a tourist attraction. Here you’ll find a platform from which to take snapshots of fellow tourists straddling the many state lines, the local Navajo offer souvenirs, crafts and lots of artery clogging fry bread and Navajo tacos.
For Nature photographers like us, this little speck on the map is noteworthy because it is the center of some of the most stunning landscapes on Earth. Surrounding this tiny spot are no fewer than thirteen National Parks totaling almost 3,000,000 acres as well as many state and tribal parks.
Often overlooked Fairyland Point in snow and fog at the north end of Bryce Canyon National Park.
A circular itinerary through the Four Corners region has long been called the Grand Circle. It’s one big loop. Since such a trip can be very extensive, you might want to break it up into bite sized chunks of more than one photo trip.
We can design a logical itinerary in any of several ways. For example, by state, by proximity or simply by highlights, while including some places and skipping others.
Just for the purposes of this column, let’s consider segmenting the whole area by state. It is certainly easy to combine portions of two or more states depending upon how much time you are able to devote to a major photo trip like this.
Your route can work equally well traveling either clockwise or counter-clockwise. Since I seem to have almost always done it in a clockwise direction, I’ll describe it that way.
One of the most stunning hoodoos anywhere, the ochre colored pinnacle dubbed Thor’s Hammer rises high above Sunset Point in Bryce Canyon National Park.
Setting out from the prime gateway airport of Las Vegas, head north up I-15 toward Zion National Park in the Southwest corner of Utah.
It’s an easy matter to loop across Utah from west to east through Zion and tiny Bryce Canyon National Parks sprawling Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument long and narrow Capitol Reef National Park (NANPA – June, 2016) and on to Moab, gateway to both stunning Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. Right next to the must-see Island in the Sky section of Canyonlands National Park is Dead Horse Point State Park, definitely worth both a sunrise and evening.
South of Moab you’ll find Natural Bridges National Monument (worthy of at least two mornings) and Hovenweep National Monument. From Natural Bridges, it’s a short drive to sprawling Monument Valley Tribal Park with its many fantastic red rock formations.
If there is a problem with planning a photo trip such as this, it is one closely related to pesky syndromes such as eating potato chips or pulling weeds in the garden; it’s so hard to stop! There’s always another one – and it’s so close by.
Just past Hovenweep is historic Mesa Verde National Park in southwestern Colorado, just a bit past popular Zion is isolated Toroweep Point and the spectacular North Rim of the Grand Canyon and on and on throughout all four states.
Probably the most under-rated of all the ancient structures in Mesa Verde National Park, Balcony House looks best in the first light of early morning.
A completely different option is starting from Denver and making a circuit through Colorado, a place with a look very different from that of contiguous Utah, but a land with just as much glorious natural beauty. Colorado boasts four national parks, just one less than Utah and a host of other gorgeous places to photograph.
These four parks are arranged in a virtual rectangle within the larger rectangular shape of the Centennial State.
The best fall color can usually be found here in the Front Range of the Rockies in late September and in some years stretching into early October. The area surrounding Telluride and Ridgeway is simply loaded with quaking aspen groves and stunning mountain shapes which combine for an endless variety of thrilling compositions.
One of the real gems of Rocky Mountain National Park, Bear Lake glistens just after sunrise.
Rocky Mountain National Park
Closest to Denver is Rocky Mountain National Park. This great park offers many rugged mountains, sparkling Alpine lakes, rushing waterfalls and lots of wildlife. It might take months to cover it thoroughly, but with a week’s effort, you should be able to come away with many wonderful images.
To start with, Sprague, Bear, Dream and Emerald Lakes, close to the really neat gateway town of Estes Park, are all excellent sunrise locations. In Estes you can tour the venerable Stanley Hotel, scene of the classic Jack Nicholson movie “The Shining.”
The many mountain vistas of the Morraine Park section of RMNP are stunning, but for real excitement, drive the length of Trail Ridge Road, one of the highest and certainly most spectacular roads in America. The views will look markedly different when driving in both directions.
Not far south of Denver is Colorado Springs featuring the Garden of the Gods with dramatic red rocks and great views of Pike’s Peak.
After crossing the small Medano Creek bed, the Great Sand Dunes loom before you. Sunrise is the best time to capture the contrasts that make dune photographs dramatic and successful.
Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve
In the San Luis Valley close to Alamosa in the southeast part of the state you’ll find Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve. These seven hundred foot tall dunes lie just beneath the rugged Sangre de Cristo Mountains and the serrated Crestone Needles. They are wonderful right at sunrise when the play of light and shadow creates an endless variety of patterns on their sensuously undulating forms. As with all such sand forms, once the sun gets a little higher, the contrasts are lost and the scene becomes rather flat.
Once you walk across the steam bed of Medano Creek, many of the best compositions are to be found toward the left as you face the dunefield. Climbing up through the sand will certainly be your cardio workout for the day.
World famous Cliff Palace was the first of the ancient structures discovered by two cowboys in 1888. It was built around 1200 C.E. and remains the largest such complex ever found.
Mesa Verde National Park
After driving west from here, pass charming Durango for now (see below) and head for Mesa Verde National Park, the very first national park established to protect the works of man, rather than those of nature. Don’t miss touring Wetherill Mesa (road open in summer only). Buy tickets in advance for Cliff Palace, Balcony House and Long House. Cliff Palace photographs best in late afternoon light; the other two in the morning; the first tour of the day is ideal for both.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Take a few days to explore the many fascinating ancient buildings and communities of the long vanished Chacoan people of Mesa Verde. Then head north to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.
It’s not called a black canyon for nothing. These walls with their many ribbons of stone are as close to jet black as you’ll find anywhere. This presents a challenge in resolving the resulting high contrast ratios. Bright, high overcast light that opens up the deep shadows will be a great help. Absent that, you might want to employ some HDR. Shoot a very wide bracket. There’s no harm in going to seven, nine or more frames from one end of the scale to the other; perhaps at 1.5 stop increments.
Even though today’s HDR software offers improved alignment functions, I would attempt such a wide bracket only when using a good, solid tripod in order to avoid camera movement.
When tone mapping your Black Canyon images in HDR software, try using a light touch, come away with a fairly flat image that encompasses the entire tonal range and do the rest in Photoshop. Otherwise, you risk producing files that could look over-processed and scream ‘HDR.’
Most of your shooting along the well paved south rim park road will be from the many overlooks. Make sure to stop at the Painted Wall. A couple of trails start right along the road and descend into the canyon itself.
When exploring the unpaved, but maintained road along the north rim of Black Canyon of the Gunnison, don’t miss shooting as late in the day as possible at the spot aptly named ‘Exclamation Point!’ Seriously.
Park at the little ranger station for the easy walk of a mile or so each way.
Towering Pike’s Peak is framed by the redrock forms known as the Siamese Twins in the sprawling and ethereal Garden of the Gods right outside Colorado Springs.
In addition to these four great national parks, there are several other locations in the Centennial State that you won’t want to miss. Among these are:
* Colorado National Monument is on the edge of Grand Junction and right near the Utah state line. Be careful not to include the city lights in your composition. A little fog will help and increase the drama of your images.
* The Maroon Bells: A short drive from Aspen, CO. Be there well before sunrise, find a spot along the edge of the lake and wait for the light to arrive.
* The area around Ridgeway is chock full of spectacular scenes. Explore some of the many byways and unpaved tracks through the San Juan Mountains. Among these is Last Dollar Road. You will be rewarded with a riot of colors and forms, sometimes blending, sometimes contrasting with each other. The patchwork of quaking aspens covered with blazing fall color is an embarrassment of riches.
To travel many of these remote roads, it’s a good idea to be driving a 4 wheel vehicle with high clearance, especially after a rain when these roads quickly become very sloppy.
* Mt. Sneffels: Look for the great pullout right along the northbound lane of Rt. 550 south of Ridgeway. Shooting from this pullout, especially when the autumn color is at or near its peak, is so easy, it can make one feel guilty. Almost.
This stunning Colorado fourteener is a great mountain to climb and is very popular with peak baggers and highly skilled heli-skiers.
* Crested Butte – Wildflower Capital of Colorado. July is best. Bring lots of insect repellent.
* The Durango-Silverton Railroad. If you have never enjoyed this fun experience, board the historic steam powered train in Durango for the full day roundtrip to Silverton. Better yet, try to be there during the few days in autumn, generally the third or fourth week of September, when this venerable line offers special photography trips.
On those runs, the engineer stops the train several times at spots along the route featuring maximum color, photographers disembark and set up a short distance from the tracks. The railroad crew then runs the empty train back and forth a bit with the funnel spewing steam and ash with the autumn foliage as a background.
It can be glorious!
These special outings are held on just two weekends per year and usually limited to just 70 folks so reserve early.
That pretty much covers the highlights of Utah and Colorado. We haven’t even touched on the best of enchanted New Mexico and spectacular Arizona. Let’s save that for another day.
Each of the tourist friendly towns mentioned offers a wide variety of lodging and dining options. Some of my favorite Mexican food is in Crested Butte.
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.