Zion National Park Day 3: Angel's Landing

(Thanks again to Tommy Botello for capturing some video of me setting up atop Angel's Landing.)

Another day photographing in Zion meant another early alarm.  Today's weather called for a mostly cloudy start that would be clearing throughout the day.  This meant all shots in the Narrows were off for today.  I did have a shot in mind that would benefit from the clouds though.  A few months prior to the trip, I envisioned a shot atop Angel's Landing.  I wanted it to be an early morning shot as the low angle of the sun would cast shadows on the canyon floor giving it a real sense of depth.  I termed this a "personal" shot as I had planned to hang it in my office.  If I can't be close to Zion, at least this would be a good way to see it everyday.  I thought a shot of Zion Canyon would be the best reminder of this magnificent place.  While the sky wouldn't be a major part of this image, clouds would definitely bring some added interest.

 Reflection of the peaks behind us with the towers in front. (35mm Kodak Portra 160)

Reflection of the peaks behind us with the towers in front. (35mm Kodak Portra 160)

 Tommy waiting for the light at the Towers of the Virgin. (35mm Kodak Portra 160)

Tommy waiting for the light at the Towers of the Virgin. (35mm Kodak Portra 160)

We started the morning driving to the Zion Museum.  This was the last day of the year that the shuttle buses would run, and the museum is one of two places you can park to catch a ride.  Behind the museum sits one of Zion's icons:  The Towers of the Virgin.  It is THE place to watch sunrise here, almost equally as iconic and accessible as the Watchman at sunset.  All you have to do is walk in an open field behind the museum.  Oddly, despite the fact that it's a shot everyone has seen, I have no aversion to shooting it like I do the Watchman.  There's just something about the sun rising and watching the light slide down those massive towers.  Even with other photographers around, the early morning makes for a much more peaceful and subdued environment.  I could honestly watch sunrise from this spot everyday.

Well, except for this day...because when we arrived there was no sunrise.  The clouds that I thought may provide some real drama were actually too thick; no sun was getting through.  I was content to wait for the buses, but as we were waiting the clouds started to clear.  I still wasn't convinced to take a shot.  It's honestly a bit hard to get motivated to unpack everything this early in the morning!  However, Marc and Tommy convinced me that I would regret it if I didn't shoot it, and I'm glad they talked me into it!  I quickly unpacked everything, and by the time I was set up, the sun had started to catch the tops of the towers.  From having taken this EXACT same shot on digital a year prior, I knew that at one point the shadow of the peak behind us would line up with the Sundial peak.  I waited for the right moment and clicked the shutter.  Even though it was an extremely high contrast scene, I shot it on Velvia 50.  I wanted to really accentuate the orange/red cliffs.  I used a two-stop hard graduated neutral density filter to help bring in some foreground detail.  One interesting thing about large format; due to the "sensor size" of the film, even hard edge ND filters will blend smoothly (even at small apertures).  This is really helpful when shooting uneven horizons.  In fact, I've found soft edge ND filters to transition too smoothly to be useful for large format.  I bracketed three sheets because the light was so extreme, but my normally exposed sheet ended up being perfect.  Also, each day I brought along a 35mm Canon Rebel loaded with some Kodak Portra to capture some behind the scenes pics; I shot some of the roll this morning as we were setting up and shooting.

 "New Beginnings" 4x5 Fuji Velvia 50, f/22, 1s, 2-stop hard graduated neutral density filter

"New Beginnings" 4x5 Fuji Velvia 50, f/22, 1s, 2-stop hard graduated neutral density filter

Once the cliffs were fully bathed in light, we packed up and loaded onto the bus.  Next stop was the Grotto and the start of the hike to Angel's Landing.  There are several warning signs at the beginning of the hike.  Angel's Landing is a bit strenuous, and if you have a fear of heights, don't even think about it.  I'll be honest, I was a bit surprised at how tough the hike was with a pack on.  It's a 5 mile round trip hike that gains just under 1500 vertical feet.  I had trained on a hike in the Smoky Mountains, the Chimney Tops, that is actually supposed to gain more elevation in the same distance.  Angel's Landing felt quite a bit harder though.

Starting along the Virgin River on mostly paved trail, you quickly gain elevation through a series of switchbacks.  About a mile into the hike, you get a reprieve from the upward ascent in Refrigerator Canyon.  This relatively flat stretch of the trail offers a lot of shade to cool off during the warmer months.  The break is short lived though as you'll soon come to Walter's Wiggles, a series of 21 short but steep switchbacks.  The wiggles end at Scout's Lookout on the West Rim of Zion Canyon.  This is a nice place for a break and offers some spectacular views in its own right.

If you are even remotely afraid of heights, Scout's Lookout will be your turnaround point.  The remainder of the hike to the top goes along the spine of a sandstone spire.  Your method of traveling is now more scrambling upward than it is hiking.  In some cases, the trail is only a few feet wide, with sheer 1000 foot drops to either side.  The park service maintains a chain system to hold on to so that does provide some relief from the heights.  Any way you look at it though, it's a tough slog both mentally and physically.

Moving along at a rather average pace, we made it to the top in about half an hour (from Scout's Lookout), and the view was as advertised!  The top "platform" is a relatively flat area that's maybe 50 yards long and perhaps averaging 20 yards wide.  Oh yeah, it's also super windy!  The wind was expected though as that's pretty much the norm for mornings in Zion.  Photographic compositions are a bit limited.  Anything in the foreground is tough to include as you'll have to stop down pretty far for depth of field; with canyon walls, canyon floor, and sky included, camera movements are not of any help.  Of course, because of the wind the longer shutter speeds make stopping down all but impossible.  However, I wasn't after a compelling foreground.  I wanted to capture as much of Zion as possible so I could hang it on a wall for a daily reminder of this place.

I took two shots, one facing up canyon and one down.  The up canyon shot is the better image here.  For one, it shows the entrance to the Narrows, a nice touch considering it's my favorite hike.  The clouds could not have cooperated better either.  Beautiful white, puffy clouds perfectly aligned in the scene!  The sky was also that brilliant shade of cobalt blue you can get in the desert on clear day.  I used a red filter to make that go almost black and really make the clouds pop.  As I'm sitting here typing, I'm staring at it, and I love the reminder it gives me of Zion.  The shot looking down canyon is alright, but the clouds weren't as cooperative.  Also, I had some depth of field issues because more foreground is included.  It's alright at smaller sizes, but gets soft when you look at it closely.

 Looking down canyon.  4x5 Ilford Delta 100, f/22, 1/2s, #25 red filter

Looking down canyon.  4x5 Ilford Delta 100, f/22, 1/2s, #25 red filter

 "Heaven's View" 4x5 Ilford Delta 100, f/22, 1/2s, #25 red filter

"Heaven's View" 4x5 Ilford Delta 100, f/22, 1/2s, #25 red filter

 No idea why I take selfies on shooting trips... (iPhone)

No idea why I take selfies on shooting trips... (iPhone)

We started the hike downward, and from reading reports online, most people consider this tougher than the ascent.  I did not find this to be the case at all though.  Perhaps it's because I don't fear heights or maybe it's the 45 pounds of stuff strapped to my back.  Either way, going downward was much easier.  We stopped on a rather large ledge just above Scout's Lookout for a bit of rest and water.  By now, the day was getting pretty hot!  I took the obligatory selfie, and then continued back to the canyon floor.

We arrived back the the Grotto bus stop intact, but exhausted.  We had thought about doing Subway the next day, but based on the way we all felt that wasn't a hike we wanted to tackle without some rest.  We went back into Springdale to grab a late lunch and then decided to travel the Mount Carmel highway to explore some of the eastern parts of the park.

This iconic drive offers spectacular views of Zion Canyon as you drive.  A few miles in, you'll come across the Mt. Carmel tunnels.  When you really think about it, these are tremendous engineering accomplishments.  One of the two tunnels is over a mile long!  Don't think too long about it though because it's also quite terrifying!  That's a LOT of sandstone you're driving underneath.

 Entrance to the Mt. Carmel tunnel. (GoPro)

Entrance to the Mt. Carmel tunnel. (GoPro)

One of my favorite aspects of Zion is simply the variety of landscapes you come across.  The eastern high country is vastly different from Zion Canyon.  Instead of vertical walls, you are treated to steep hills of white and orange striated sandstone.  There are many "washes" full of maples and cottonwoods.  While there are far fewer trails, this open country is readily available to explore.  We pulled off on the side of the road and just hiked around for a bit.  One shot that caught my eye was a sandstone abstract showing just the striated lines.  I'm honestly not great at visualizing abstract scenes like this, and I think this image shows it.  It's definitely something I've got to work on as I think there is vast potential in this part of the park.  Something to shoot for next year!

 Sandstone Abstract. 4x5 Fuji Velvia 50, f/22, 1s

Sandstone Abstract. 4x5 Fuji Velvia 50, f/22, 1s

The night ended with a routine trip to Sol Foods, the local grocery store, to grab some dinner.  Fun fact, locals have a "Local Card" that gives a discount on groceries.  I've got to get my hands on one of those cards!  Back at the hotel, the previously "Closed for Maintenance" hot tub was back up and running!  Couldn't ask for a better way to recover from a hike to Angel's Landing.