May 7-10, 2011 Southern Utah Spring Safari

When we arrived in Zion late Saturday afternoon the sky was clear blue, the winds were mild, and temps were comfortable.  On our return leg through Zion on Tuesday morning there was a dusting of snow on the high ridges, the raging winds had calmed some, it was in the mid 30’s, and the sky was full of storm clouds.  Those of you who have read the blogs this year know that adverse weather has become a normal condition.  Success in the field becomes a matter of determination.  On this trip we photographed in Zion, Bryce Canyon, Monument Valley, and the Goosenecks, a Utah state park just north of Monument Valley that overlooks the San Juan River.

The late afternoon shoot on Saturday in Zion was centered on the large group of desert bighorn ewes, lambs, and immature rams that we encountered between the two tunnels up on the roof of Zion, a few miles west of the park’s East Entrance.  From all the spring rains and mild temperatures the park has a green sheen to it that I’ve never seen before.  The grass is green and lush, and all the creeks that are normally dry have water running through them.

Desert Bighorn ewes and lambs on an overlook.

The sheep put on a great show of interactions between the ewes and lambs.  The lambs would nurse, chase around a little, the immature rams would knock heads – it was an entertaining group to photograph.

Two ewes on an overlook.

A lamb nurses from its mother.

Eventually the road started to fill with tourists and the sheep began watching them as much, if not more, than they were being watched.  We never did see the larger rams, but they were around somewhere.  They usually hang together in bachelor groups until a month or so before the rut begins in October.  The smaller size and thinner bodies of the desert bighorn allow them to survive in much harsher environments than their more numerous cousins, the Rocky Mountain Bighorn I’ve photographed often in Yellowstone and Glacier parks.  While shooting the sheep I noticed a small arch a few hundred yards farther up the slope that I had never seen before.  Having only my 500mm lens – I slowly rotated around the scene above the sheep and shot a number of nice landscapes.  It crops very tight images, but in processing they were sharp and that’s what matters.

Silhouetted Pine

Near the sheep, this arch caught my attention.

Saturday night we stayed in Kanab, rising early to shoot the sunrise in Bryce Canyon.  At 8000 feet it was cold Sunday morning, but the sky was clear and the winds were probably average.  Queen’s Garden looked awesome.  We hiked down the Navajo Trail from Sunrise Point this year.  The trail we took down last year was washed out from the rains and blocked by a small bulldozer that had been rebuilding the trail.  There are so many rock formations – ranging from panels and ridges, to hoodoo clusters and windows, to erosion folds and pronounced color changes in the rock – it is a target rich environment.

Eroded Rock Formation off the Navajo Trail.

After spending a few hours working on landscapes we stopped at the Utah Prairie Dog colony inside the park.  One of four types of prairie dogs, the Utah Prairie Dog is listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.  The gregarious prairie dogs live in colonies in southwestern Utah, including Bryce Canyon National Park.

Utah Prairie Dog

They are rough-and-tumble little animals that will wrestle and chase each other and provide great moments of action.  As you can see in the image above, the meadow grass was thick inside their colony of burrows.

Later that day we traveled to Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park but the weather front had really begun coming through and the high winds and blowing sand prevented us from doing any photography.  On our way east we stopped at the Toad Stools site in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and photographed them and many of the blooming flower species.  While rocks are easy to photograph in the wind, flowers aren’t.  The light was constantly shifting with the passing clouds but the winds really seemed to pick up.

Blueleaf Aster Wildflowers near the Toad Stools

We headed out for Monument Valley at 4am.  On the trip the severe weather seemed to be telling us to go back.  There was rain and high winds as we drove north, finally entering this Navajo Tribal Park just before dawn.  Photography is the story of moments in time, and luckily not hours, or even minutes.  Our first stop along the 17 mile dirt road brought a view of the The Mittens and Merrick Butte.  With dark bands of clouds above the rocks and very little light below I didn’t want to shoot with the 12-24mm lens and include too much in the image – so I opted for my 24-120mm lens in order to compose the images.

The Mittens - Just after Sunrise - Panoramic

In the image above I tried to center the sunburst through the clouds.  It was shot at 28mm, F16 and 1/80 second, at ISO 100.  In processing I brought the levels down using the gray slider, both to provide a better silhouette of the Mittons and to darken the sky that was beginning to burn out above the clouds.  I selected the silhouetted area, then inversed the selection and added some additional yellow to the sky using the photo filter options in CS5.  After processing the image, I further cropped it into a panoramic format to reduce both the amount of silhouette and the dark clouds.  I think the final image shown here has a good balance between the Mittons and the rising sun – and the sun burst.

Monument Valley with its famous Mittons and buttes is a landscape so large that cropping to panoramic dimensions (usually 2:1 – like 15″height x 30″wide) provides a more interesting presentation of its geologic features.

Artist's Point Overlook - Panoramic

As you can see in this view, storm clouds are sliding by during the brief period of time we had sun to work with.  Below is another view of the valley buttes from the North Window Overlook, but left with traditional dimensions.  I like the composition that forces your eye up like this – it makes the valley seem as large as it really is without emphasizing the buttes as much as the space.

North Window Overlook - High POV

Eventually the high winds and blowing dust obscured the valley to the point that the buttes were just shadows in the distance.  The storm front continued to pass over us as we headed back to Kanab to shoot Zion on Tuesday morning before heading for home.  This was my first shoot to Monument Valley – after the 5 years of living and shooting around St. George and 17 more years living in northern Utah – I finally made it to this remarkable valley.

Checkerboard Mesa

The next morning we drove through rising clouds into Zion.  We spotted the sheep again but they were bedded down and not moving.  We shot Checkerboard Mesa and moved west down the road, beyond the tunnels, to the the switchback overlooks.  Clouds were moving north, swirling across the face of the West Temple and into Zion Canyon.  Wow.

Clouds swirl around the West Temple in Zion.

About brentrpaull

Professional Photographer
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