Utah’s Beautiful Big Five: Zion

Hanging tree along the east side of Zion National Park enjoying the morning sun perched upon a hoodoo.
An interesting Hoodoo stands out on a ridge along the east side of Zion.

After enjoying the spectacular drive down Utah’s Route 12, which I feel truly deserves a whole different trip to explore further. It is time to get to Zion National Park. This park has grown on me quickly with two previous shorter visits here in the past. It feels nice to be back into this amazing environment and surroundings. The goal is to make it to the wilderness station to obtain my subway hiking permit which is a hike and photo destination I’ve planned on doing for awhile. Has I am driving through the east side of the park I can see what appears to be smoke coming from the main canyon area. Thoughts cross my mind that perhaps they’re having a controlled burn. Getting closer to and ready to enter the visitor center parking lot I soon find out the smoke is a different story. Sadly a human caused wildfire had broken out just outside the visitor center and it’s turning into a fairly good sized one. Unfortunately this is devastating to see and witness has there is a good amount of area being burned to nothing. Additionally it looks like they have closed access to the visitors center, the watchman campground and permit office all of which is where I was headed and means chances of getting the permit I need are now at risk. The fire is growing has they struggle to keep it under control forcing them to close and restrict access to the area even further. I decide to retreat to the human history museum just up the road to let some time pass. It is still fairly early in the afternoon so I am still holding onto a slight bit of optimism of the permit office reopening. Additionally I am suppose to be camping in the watchman campground and start to wonder if I’ll be able to stay there at all for the night. The fire is out but the damage is done and there is quite a few acres of land burned and severely damaged, it is sad to see. At the same time I’m also grateful that they were able to contain the fire before it really got out of control. After sometime passes they open up the main road again and I’m able to make a move towards the visitor center from the parking lot at Zion Outfitters. From the parking lot I make a dash to the visitor center and to the widerness office hoping to find someone. No such luck at first but soon find a ranger and ask him about getting the permit but unfortunately they had to close for the day due to the fire. So my long anticipated subway hike will have to wait for another time and journey.

The moon holds frame in position above the aged tree.

With some time on my hands before the day is over I’m finally able to gain access to the campground and get my gear set up. Opting to go for a photo shoot before the day light fades. I venture off to the east side of the park in search of photo opportunities. The skies are sky blue without a cloud for any interest or to make for a dynamic sunset to appear. There are some unique trees and structures along the large slabs of rock on the east side of Zion that can make for a more abstract looking set of images. As I descend into a dry creek along the far east side of the park it is hard not to notice the large animal tracks in the sand. Considering there is no dogs allowed in the park there is only one thing these prints can belong to and that is a mountain lion. An odd feeling comes over me but I try not to think about getting eaten by a large cat and just focus on the surroundings. There are some fun hoodoos along a curved ridge that create an entertaining set of images. After the shadows overcome the area has the sun is setting below the canyon walls. The moon has already shown itself to the eastward sky and creates a unique perspective to a decayed tree that stands alone in isolation while the moon hoovers over its branches creating a torch looking similarity. After finishing up I’m happy with these images has they are something different for me in comparison to my previous photography experiences in prior journeys here.

The needles of the hanging tree in Zion are just starting to glow with the first touches of daylight.

The next day comes and it was supposed to be the day of the subway hike but with no permit due to the wildfire the plans had to change which called for some creative improvisation. For sunrise and first light I take a bit of a gamble and put the focus on an interesting tree that hangs from a hoodoo towards the east side of the park. It is quiet here other than the close proximity of the road the isolation feels nice on this crisp start to a winter morning in Zion. It takes longer than expected for the light to creep above the canyon walls ridge to illuminate the subject matter of interest. So there is a lot of pacing and philosophizing about life matters while waiting for the light to come into place. With patience and time the light finally makes its way to the tree in mind for the composition to come into play. The scene is not quite has dynamic has I had hoped for due to how high the sun in the sky had already positioned itself. The scene is still interesting and with working for a few abstract compositions all in all it was a good morning.

Calf Creek Falls tucked away in Zion National Park.

For mid morning I found a short trail to hike that leads to a small waterfall. The pine creek falls trail is one that often goes overlooked by other areas of the park so it is nice that it is quiet along the way. There is only one couple that I run into and they hang out for a little while. In time I eventually have the area for myself and it is pleasurable to listen the flowing water while composing and capturing a few images of the tranquil scene.

Chasing reflections along the Many Pools Trail.

In the afternoon it is off to the east side again to explore a trail I only did part of on a previous trip. The many pools trail has become one of my favorite areas to hike in Zion so far. The terrain is scenic and freeing to the senses while being full of visually stimulating tree forms and variety of vegetation that lines its way along the canyon. One of the things here that is the most attractive to me at least is the formation of the little pools in the rocks that make up the landscape along the trail. The small pools of water pick up the reflections from the rock formations that make up the surrounding scenery. After hiking around for awhile and scouting out a few options for a possible image I find a section that is picking up an interesting reflection that makes for a fun abstract photograph. This was a fun shorter hike that was very enjoyable and produced an image that I was overall pleased with in the end.

The Watchman Tower glowing red amongst the fading setting sun.

On the way back to the main canyon as the sun is setting the sky is lacking in clouds again. The objective for an evening shoot is to focus on any reflective lighting coming off the canyon walls. As I drive over the bridge that overlooks the Virgin river and the watchman a park ranger is dispersing pedestrians. Unfortunately because the park has become so popular you can no longer stand along the bridge and capture an image of the watchman tower for one of the most iconic sunset photographs centered around Zion. As the sun sets it is creating a strong reddish cast against the stone structure of the watchman. Grabbing an opportunity to get an image of the scene there is a good vantage point form the visitor center parking lot utilizing a telephoto lens to get a compressed composition that makes for a pleasant photograph. As the day closes I didn’t get to do what I came here for but I’m happy overall and grateful to be here in this wonderful park.

As morning comes in it’s easier to get out and about early to take advantage of the day. The skies are lacking any clouds so there is not much of a chance to focus on a broad landscape image. Instead I decide to take the morning to explore along the Virgin River inside the main canyon. It is nice here along the banks of the river and the air is fresh and invigorating. As the sun comes up above the ridge to the east the walls become lit with the morning’s sun that ends up making for an interesting compressed landscape photograph.

The morning light first creeps into the main canyon and brightens up a rock wall along the Big Bend section of the park.

Spending some more time hiking about looking for an area of the water that is picking up color form the rock walls. I’m not really finding what I’m looking for on my way I notice an old tree that sits along the trail. It is long past its prime and lays in aging decay but it still reveals plenty of beauty that gets told amongst the cracks and lines of the years. The yellow grass makes for an extra touch of interest contrasting the grayish tones of the old tree wood. It makes for an enjoyable photograph for me as there is something about its character that stands out in my mind as I look at the image.

An old fallen tree tells many tales throughout it years here along the virgin River in Zion National Park.

It is time to wrap things up here in this magnificent place of Zion National Park. It was a short but extremely pleasant trip that still leaves me continually wanting to return here again. For now it’s on with the journey and off to explore Bryce Canyon for the first time. 

The virgin river glows orange with reflections coming off the surrounding canyon walls during the first light of the new day.

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