The thunderstorms that swept up into Southern Utah in early May provided our safari group with the towering cloud formations that landscape photographers dream of. That was the good news. The bad news was a bit too much rain came with those clouds, and the number of closed roads on BLM land leading to Sidestep Canyon in the Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument. We worked around the weather, but were stymied by the BLM road closures.
The Saturday night (May 2) before the safari started, after settling into our hotel room in Hurricane (pronounced Hurricun for those not accustomed to Utah speech patterns), we headed up to Gooseberry Mesa, directly south of the southern border of Zion National Park. This twilight image (above) shows Smithsonian Butte (bottom right in image) getting the last few rays of a fast disappearing sun.
All the back-roads and scenic byways we traveled during the safari reminded me of the years I lived in St. George (1985-1990) and countless hours I spent discovering a new country of red rock and desert wildlife. Those early formative years were filled with photography experiences that built a foundation of knowledge for me that I’ve drawn from ever since.
On our first full day afield found us spending the morning in Zion National Park (ZNP) chasing images of desert bighorn ewes and lambs of the year. Unlike bighorn lambs in Yellowstone – born in May, these little desert lambs were probably born in March and had already grown into strong and sure rock climbers.
In this image (above) five of these lambs of the year follow each other across steep Navajo sandstone gradients. Many times they were a bit too close to us as we tried to stay in front of them. A lamb easily leaps up to another level (below) of the rocks, the other playful lambs following after him.
I call the area above the long tunnel, heading east towards the east entrance, the “roof” of Zion. It’s amid these amazing rock monoliths that the desert bighorn sheep have flourished. Prickly pear cactus was blossoming in a multitude of colors, there was blooming agave, and many colorful wildflowers – not to mention the massive distraction of huge mountains of solid rock. There were photography subjects in every direction.
As the morning wore on we drove the short distance to Bryce Canyon National Park (BCNP) traveling to the far end of the park – to Rainbow Point. Brilliant rays of light danced through the clouds, filtering through the rock formations while off in the distance dark, powerful thunderheads built to the north and east. Rainbow Point is just over 9000 feet in elevation, and temps had certainly dropped into the low 40’s – and with the wind the cold was bone chilling.
We stopped to photograph the Utah Prairie Dog village near the intersection of the highway and the Sunset Point Road. There were about a dozen out moving around – I’m sure the cold and wind keeping many of them, including the babies, deep inside their warm burrows.
A light rain began to fall as we headed in to eat lunch at Bryce Canyon Lodge. I usually stop at Ruby’s Inn near the BCNP entrance, but I had never eaten at the Lodge so we gave it a try, and discovered we should have eaten at Ruby’s Inn….
Back in ZNP we continued photographing sheep, cactus, and wildflowers. For sunset we drove up the Kolob Terrace road out of Virgin, UT, past the North Creek Trailhead that leads hikers to the Subway slot canyon, to the meadows where scenes were shot for the movie “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”. The views back southeast to the West Temple were obscured by dust from the winds and mist from the lowering clouds.
On day 2 we headed for one of my favorite bird, butterfly, and wildflower locations – Leeds Creek. The road rises from the town of Leeds on I-15, goes north through the upscale community of Silver Reef (an old silver mining town), then continues as a dirt road north about 6 miles to the Oak Grove Campground at the base of towering Pine Valley Mountain. Those six miles and about 3000 vertical feet take you through a number of life zones. From cactus and yucca, to oaks and lupines, and finally to pines and monkeyflowers. I wrote an article a decade or two ago for the Deseret News (in SLC, Utah) about the amazing selection of butterflies along this stretch of road called “Jewels on the Wind”.
We got near the end of the road at Oak Grove Campground and found the gate locked … with just 500 yards to go. Up in the pine/oak forest surrounding the campground I usually photograph tanagers, woodpeckers, orioles, etc. In the thick Gambel’s Oak woodlands we made the best of it. To my surprise we got a whole new assortment of songbirds that I hadn’t photographed along the road before. We shot Virginia’s Warblers, Black-headed Grosbeaks, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Plumbeous Vireos, House Wrens, Northern Flickers, and other woodpeckers. We pulled into a small campsite just off the road, but inside the 20 foot tall thin Gambel’s Oak forest the bird song was deafening.
For a few hours we were shooting song birds almost non-stop – especially the house wren, which showed no lack of courage in fluttering around our heads and landing just a few feet away – forcing me to back up again and again.
Eventually the birds quieted down and we began shooting wildflowers and cactus. It was probably too cool for reptiles to be out, though I have shot many varieties of snakes and lizards on this road in the past.
After lunch we headed back to ZNP. We had more sheep encounters, shot landscapes, and when the wind wasn’t blowing as hard I shot a number of wildflowers I hadn’t shot in the park before. There were tourists around but the park certainly wasn’t crowded. The road into Zion Canyon had just been closed the week before, and the bus service is great for tourists but not for photographers – so we skipped the canyon.
We ended the day in a light drizzle back in Hurricane for the night. The following morning we were out the door about 4am for the long drive out to the Tuweep section of Grand Canyon National Park (GCNP). This amazing overlook in GCNP is about 62 miles directly south, cutting across the Arizona Strip, from Hwy 9, near Pipe Springs National Monument – on a dirt road. It’s a well maintained dirt road, even to the ranger station, but the last mile is tough – and not for those afraid of banging the bottom of their vehicle. My truck has pretty high clearance and I nailed rock ledges twice.
It was a bit overcast and cool, which didn’t detour the guys from shooting overlook images along the canyon’s rim. No trails, no protective fences – just straight down 3000 feet to the Colorado River far below. I shot some videos of the moving storm clouds and of the “tanks” which were all full of rainwater. Tanks are rock pools, eroded down through thousands of years, which provide water to desert wildlife in this sparse country.
After lunch in Kanab we headed for Sidestep Canyon in the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. That was disappointing. The BLM, which manages the national monument, closed off the roads leading to the canyon to restrict visitation. While I had photographed Sidestep Canyon a half dozen times, I was disappointed for the guys – disappointed they wouldn’t see this amazing spot. We passed on hiking the final two miles in with all our gear and settled for wildflowers. We got into Monument Valley late that afternoon amid thunderstorms and wind – and got a good look at where we would spend the morning.
The clouds were perfect for our final day. We shot the famous rock monoliths in Monument Valley throughout the morning, only getting around the road twice. We had spotted wild horses (all wild horses in North America are actually Feral horses, escaped from the Spanish, or the Mexicans, or the pioneers or farmers who first colonized these areas after the Native American Indians) the night before and were determined to find them again to shoot them among the dunes and desert scenes along this area of the Utah-Arizona border.
We wanted to get into some of the locked off areas that require an Indian Guide but were unable to come to an equitable arrangement. The fees to go into these areas, like the totem poles, is steep. I always find it kind of commercial that “sacred” ground has a price to make it accessible.
We spent a couple of hours working these horses in the Monument Valley sand dunes. Until I saw desert bighorn in ZNP eating yucca spines I didn’t think they were edible, but these horses all ate the sharp spines on the available yuccas as well. We worked our way back across southern Utah and entered ZNP for one more crack at the desert bighorn sheep. For all our success on the previous days we were shut out this time. The small herds of sheep had vanished from the areas we had photographed them in just days before. The rams, so much more visible in the fall (November) when the rut begins in Zion – also escaped from our lenses.
I’m glad to say that my new truck worked as I intended it. I had the shell customized so the side windows flip up, and then in late April I customized (with Bob Sutton) the truck bed interior with shelves and storage. The windows on the side open and we built shelves just inside for cameras, tripods, and stuff so we would have quick access. All our suitcases and camera bags fit easily into the center area for storage, with room for more. After returning from the trip I found a little dust had entered the shell around the tailgate so I bought insulation tape and hopefully solved that.
Even with four in the truck and all our stuff it was comfortable to drive and still averaged about 20mpg – going anywhere we needed it to go.
I shot just over 4200 images for the 4 day safari. Normally we shoot about 75% landscapes and 25% wildlife, but with all the songbirds and desert bighorn we had encounters with, I would say the numbers were exactly opposite. Everyday there was some driving to be done but everyone had fun – and I enjoyed the photographers that came along. All have gone on safaris in the past with me and all of them are just good guys, easy to travel with, excited to see and photograph new subjects – and they made this a great experience for me – I hope I made it a great experience for them. BRP