My final day and final shot of the trip was an afternoon image in Zion Canyon, so naturally my alarm went off around 4:45. Tommy was heading home a day early and had to be at the airport before sunrise to catch his flight. We loaded up his stuff and checked him out of the hotel. If you want a fun brain exercise, try splitting a hotel room cost between three people with two of them staying an extra day...and do all of the at 5 in the morning! We eventually decided to work it out later, and I drove Tommy to St. George for his return flight.
I returned to Zion and was able to see the sun come up on a new day. Marc and I leisurely loaded our gear into the car and made our way to the park. However, before I set up my shot of Angel's Landing, I had an even more important task at hand: buy souvenirs! I had to make sure and return with something for Addison! I spent some time in the giftshop and eventually came away with a shirt (same one I bought her in 2013, just two sizes bigger now...she's growing up on me!), a stuffed animal, and a book about the geological history of Zion. The last book may have been for me...:)
After purchasing the requisite gifts, Marc and I made our way into the canyon for my final image. This was an image I had envisioned many months before my trip. When I first visited Zion, I was completely blown away by the shear scale of the canyon walls. This place is MASSIVE! However, that is often difficult to portray in an image, and this is something I wanted to accomplish with this image. Angels' Landing is one of the more recognizable features in Zion Canyon, and I wanted to try to frame this beneath the branch of a cottonwood tree. There is something about having an object above a feature that makes it seem even more massive; I don't know why that is. The image I was going for was inspired Ansel Adams' Half Dome, Autumn (seen here).
I had scouted this image on my very first day in the park, but the tree I had originally found was best suited for a vertical composition. I had shot a lot of vertical images on this trip so I decided to look around a bit more. After about half an hour, Marc found an even better tree and we set up there. All I needed for this image was direct sun on Angel's Landing and clear skies. I planned to use a red filter to darken the skies and really make Angel's Landing stand out even more.
As we were setting up, I noticed that as the sun was rising, the peaks on the east side of the canyon were casting shadows that would soon be in our image. I was concerned that this would ruin the shot, so I quickly fired off two shots. However, after thinking about it for a bit, I realized that the shadows would actually serve to frame Angel's Landing even better. I waited a bit longer until the shadows were in the lower portion of my composition then fired off several more shots as the shadow extended further into my composition.
What a lucky shot! The shadow from those cliffs adds so much more to this image than when I first shot it. The sky was that brilliant shade of cobalt blue that happens on a clear day so it went really dark under the influence of the #25 filter. Of course I say "lucky" somewhat tongue in cheek. This is an image that I had thought about for months. So in that regard, it wasn't just something I stumbled upon; it was a scene that I actively sought to create. However, the changing position of the sun was not something I could have anticipated. This really was a case of right place at the right time.
Once that shadow extended all the way into the grassy field in our foreground, we packed up. As we were were packing up, a group of turkeys (which I just discovered is called a rafter) walked within about 10 feet of us. The wildlife here really has no fear! I had long ago decided that this would be the last image of my trip. However, Marc still had a half day left to shoot. He is a fan of panoramas, so I showed him my iPhone pano of my previous day's hike to the Northgate Peaks. We decided this would be a good place to take in sunset and try to get him one final image.
Once again, I made the trip up the Kolob Terrace, and once again the Northgate viewpoint was completely deserted save for Marc and myself. Since I had already done my "closing hike" I decided to explore a little bit. You can scramble to the summit of both East and West Northgate Peaks; since the east peak had the better view of Zion Canyon, I chose to make the ascent up this one. It's a steep ascent, but there is never really a danger of falling. At worst, if you fell you would skid quite a way over rough sandstone. Certainly not appealing, but not ever a danger to your life either. After about 15 minutes from the base, I made it to the summit and was greeted with a stunning 360 degree view of my surroundings. This is an area that would be tough to photograph with a 4x5; a 6x17 on the other hand would do quite nicely.
I sat atop the peak and again just listened to the wind filter through the slot canyons. Literally above it all, I thought about all the people who were down exploring the various canyons in front of me. Once again, I had an overwhelming sense of feeling really small. I get quite existential whenever I'm in Zion.
I eventually returned to the lava rock viewpoint, and Marc and I waited for some clouds to hopefully roll in. Instead what we got were contrails...lots and lots of contrails that would not go away! While Marc waited and hoped for some color, I finished off a roll of 35mm Portra 160. When the trip started, I had planned to document everything on 35mm film and an old Canon Rebel. Instead, it rarely made it out of my pack, and I discovered that Portra 160 is WAY to slow to shoot handheld in the Narrows, even with a 50mm f/1.8 lens! Still, I wanted to finish the roll so I could get it developed when I got home.
We waited and waited but eventually it became clear that we wouldn't get any color that evening. Marc eventually packed up and we headed back. On our way back, through the trees we witnessed one of the most nuclear skies I have ever seen. I tried to capture it on iPhone, but I couldn't get the colors exactly right. I've posted it below, but the actual sunset had deeper reds. It was certainly a sight!
We returned to the hotel and packed up everything for our respective return trips. The next morning I again awoke well before sunrise. I said "See ya next year" to Marc and then made the drive to St. George. As the plane took off, I had hoped for an aerial view of Zion at sunrise, but an incoming storm placed a layer of clouds between me and the park. Oh well, perhaps its best that my last view of Zion from this trip was the previous night's sunset up on the Kolob Terrace. The trip home was uneventful, and a blast of frigid air upon leaving the plane in Chattanooga reminded me that I was back to reality. As I dejectedly trudged toward baggage claim, I heard a familiar "Daddy!" My wife had brought Addison to the airport to welcome me back. It was a complete surprise and the perfect way to close out a perfect trip!