Fall Colors: Sipapu Natural Bridge

Sipapu Bridge, from the trail down into White Canyon.

Sipapu Bridge, from the trail down into White Canyon.

Early November: time for the high desert fall colors, now that the high country show up in the aspen forest zone is over. So at Natural Bridges National Monument in southeast Utah’s San Juan County, I headed down the trail from the parking lot on the Loop Drive (formally “Bridge View Drive”) to Sipapu Bridge.

I didn’t have a whole lot of time that afternoon, sunlight wise, due to the short days. So I hoofed it hard down the trail to catch up with the light still making the Fremont Cottonwood trees glow in the canyon bottom.

Sipapu Bridge is the sixth largest natural bridge in the world, and second largest on this side of the world, after Rainbow Bridge in Glen Canyon. (The four largest natural bridges are all in China.) Earlier this season I’d met a young man at this point on the trail, the best vantage point for getting the blue sky in the photo through the bridge’s span (opening), and he said: “It’s even bigger than I thought it would be”.

A few golden cottonwood trees are visible from up above, but to get the full treatment you have to go down. All the way down to the stream bottom in White Canyon, 500 feet below the trailhead up on the rim.

Underneath mighty Sipapu Bridge, sixth largest in the world.

Underneath mighty Sipapu Bridge, sixth largest in the world.

Since the sun was low in the west, I took a hard right turn, east up the canyon bottom, to use the sunlight to backlight the cottonwood colors, which makes them glow their brightest.

Underneath Sipapu, looking up makes the immense span arching high overhead look thin compared to the side view from above.

Fremont Cottonwood trees in fall splendor, White Canyon above Sipapu Bridge.

Fremont Cottonwood trees in fall splendor, White Canyon above Sipapu Bridge.

I walked a bit further upstream along the bank in order to position some lit up cottonwoods in front of the mighty bridge.  I made a few exposures from up on the bank of the stream course, which only flows intermittently with the rains and snows. The low angle of the sunlight through the bridge’s opening not only lit up the trees, but reflected off the muddy water of the stream. The low shaft of sunlight in the deep shadows made the scene feel like a secret garden portal or something.

Pools of water from recent rain and snow storm, White Canyon.

Pools of water from recent rain and snow storm, White Canyon.

Then I jumped down into the stream bed itself. Being at the very buttress of the immense arch of Cedar Mesa Sandstone makes for cramped quarters in the camera viewfinder, even with an ultra wide angle lens. In order to create the composition I wanted, I made two or three overlapping photos, and later merged them into a single high resolution panorama in Adobe Lightroom.

Ultra wide angle two shot panorama at Sipapu Bridge.

Ultra wide angle two shot panorama at Sipapu Bridge.

Satisfied with this portion of my foray, it was time to pound it back up the trail to the parking lot. Because I was going to try to bag fall colors shots at the second of the three bridges, too: Kachina Bridge. I was quickly running low on sunlight in the canyon bottom.

Photo location: Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah.

© Copyright 2015 Stephen J. Krieg

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