Moki Dugway, Cedar Mesa, San Juan County, Utah.

Moki Dugway Sunrise

Cedar Mesa south escarpment from the Moki Dugway, Utah.

Warm sunrise colors on the south escarpment of Cedar Mesa.

I was coming down off Cedar Mesa via the Moki Dugway section of Utah Highway 261 at sunrise. There were gorgeous colors in the clouds to the east, but I wasn’t in place for a good shot.

However, the same clouds served to extend the warm colors of sunrise for several minutes past when they otherwise would have disappeared, bathing the cliffs in a golden glow.

Moki Dugway, Cedar Mesa, San Juan County, Utah.

The Moki Dugway and Cedar Mesa in golden sunrise glow.

The shadows of cliffs upon other cliffs made for an interesting effect.

Sunrise shadows on the Moki Dugway, San Juan County, Utah.

Sunrise shadows, Moki Dugway.

Once below the Dugway, I turned east onto the Valley Of The Gods Road. The golden light persisted while I got some shots of some of the buttes along the southern escarpment of Cedar Mesa.

Valley Of The Gods and Cedar Mesa, San Juan County, Utah.

Sunrise on the southern escarpment of Cedar Mesa, from Valley Of The Gods.

Valley Of The Gods at sunrise, San Juan County, Utah.

Buttes and cliffs at sunrise, Valley Of The Gods.

Photo location: south end of Cedar Mesa, above Valley Of The Gods and Mexican Hat, Utah.

Copyright 2016 Stephen J. Krieg

Moonrise over Bears Ears Buttes, Utah.

February Moonrise, Bears Ears

moonrise over bears ears buttes, from Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah.

Moonrise over the Bears Ears Buttes, Feb. 20 at 5 PM, two days before Full Moon.

It was once again Full Moon time. Usually the best day for moonrise landscape shots is the evening before the Full Moon — the day before, rather than the day of Full Moon.

Two days before (Feb. 20), at 5 PM, an hour before sunset, the almost-full moon was rising over the Bears Ears Buttes, as seen from the Visitor Center at Natural Bridges.

Full moon rising over Bears Ears East Butte, southeast Utah.

Moon rising over Bears Ears East Butte at sunset, Feb. 21.

I once again turned to The Photographer’s Ephemeris (PhotoEphemeris.com) to help me plan my shoot for the following evening, Feb 21.

The moon would rise about 56 minutes later than the previous evening, almost at sunset. The Photographer’s Ephemeris also tell you the azimuth — the compass direction — that it will rise at. That helps immensely as far as getting in position to have the moon rise near an especially attractive landscape feature. In this case, the Bears Ears Buttes.

Full moon moonrise over Bears Ears Buttes, Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah.

Moonrise panorama, Bears Ears Buttes.

The only problem with having the time and azimuth of moonrise to work with is that it’s only exact for a flat landscape, like an ocean or the plains. If there’s a mountain in the way, the moon won’t be visible until it gets up high enough to clear it. And the moon doesn’t rise straight up, it arcs toward the south, here in the Northern Hemisphere.

Moonrise, full moon, Bears Ears East Butte, Utah.

Full Moon rising over Bears Ears East Butte.

I had been hoping to position myself so that the moon would rise directly between the two buttes. But by the time it came up that night it appeared over the right shoulder of Bears Ears East Butte from where I was standing. Oh, well, it would still make for an awesome scene.

Moonrise over Bears Ears Buttes, Utah.

Moonrise and last rays of sunset on the Bears Ears.

By the time the moon rose over the butte, it was almost sunset. The low angle of the sunlight put a somewhat golden glow on the landscape.

Then the sun was down and it was time for a twilight shot.

Moonrise over Bears Ears Buttes, San Juan County, southeast Utah.

Moonrise at dusk, Bears Ears.

I had been blessed with clear skies for this shoot. Since I had the next day off I would be free to travel. The following evening the moon would be rising at dusk, 15 minutes after sunset. By the time it cleared the mountains I had in mind, it would be very nearly dark. Still, it was worth a try. So to Canyonlands I went. Stay tuned.

Photo Location: Natural Bridges National Monument, San Juan County, southeast Utah.

© Copyright 2016 Stephen J. Krieg

Valley Of The Gods (Utah) in Winter

Red buttes and cliffs along Valley Of The Gods loop road.

Red buttes and cliffs along Valley Of The Gods loop road. (Click on image for larger version).

Southeast Utah’s Valley Of The Gods is a portion of the San Juan River Valley just east of the hamlet of Mexican Hat. The portion called “Valley Of The Gods” is an area of red buttes and red dirt valley floor that is drained by Cedar Mesa’s Lime Creek, as well as a whole lot of other unnamed washes. It’s public land, administered by the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and has a popular, though somewhat rough (for two wheel drive sedans), 16 mile loop road through the middle of it. You can start either from the main east-west highway, US 163, or the Cedar Mesa highway, Utah 261.

Valley Of The Gods loop road.

Valley Of The Gods loop road.

Looming above the Valley Of The Gods is Cedar Mesa itself. The sheer cliffs at the south end of the mesa rise straight up from the valley floor for about 1,000 feet. To the far west you can make out the silhouettes of some of the famous red sandstone buttes of Monument Valley, along the horizon on the Navajo Nation.

Red rock buttes and fins, Valley Of The Gods.

Red rock buttes and fins, Valley Of The Gods.

This day I drove the Valley loop road from west to east. The western end of the road is usually in the best condition, with flat to gentle grades. With the cold weather after the most recent snows, the road was slightly muddy in places, snowpacked in others. A road grader had smoothed it out not long before, so it was as good as it gets. I don’t recommend driving it in a low clearance sedan, regardless of the season, although some people do (and some of those wish they hadn’t). When the road is impassible for all but four-wheel-drive vehicles, I tell people: “If you’re not a god, stay out of Valley Of The Gods until the road dries out”.

Red rock butte against a bright overcast sky, Valley Of The Gods.

Red rock butte against a bright overcast sky, Valley Of The Gods.

At about the middle of the loop road is some of the most spectacular scenery, because you’re close to some of the taller buttes, and also the cliffs along the flanks of Cedar Mesa. It’s also where the road goes up and down somewhat steeply for short pitches, and where the shadiest parts are. Meaning the most snow and ice, or mud when it thaws out, during the winter season.

Valley Of The Gods road, in between the shaded snowy areas.

Valley Of The Gods road, in between the shaded snowy areas.

All in all, Valley Of The Gods is fun, interesting, scenic, has free dispersed camping, no crowds, and is free to enter. Quite a deal.

Photo Location: Valley Of The Gods, between Bluff and Mexican Hat, San Juan County, Utah.

Copyright 2016 Stephen J. Krieg

Natural Bridges After The Storms

Visitors at Sipapu Bridge View Point, from the Sipapu Trailhead.

Visitors at Sipapu Bridge View Point, from the Sipapu Trailhead.

January 8 wrapped up several days of winter storms in the area. And wrapped it up beautifully. The last of the storms was clearing out as I drove the 9-mile loop road to each of the view points. With a fresh new coating of snow the cliffs of White Canyon, Armstrong Canyon, and the Red House Cliffs west of the park, things looked even more awesome than before.

White Canyon from Kachina Bridge View Point walkway.

White Canyon from Kachina Bridge View Point walkway. (Click on image for a larger version).

There were few visitors that day, which is a shame. Such awesome scenery to be had, and no crowds!

The mouth of Armstrong Canyon, into White Canyon at Kachina Bridge.

The mouth of Armstrong Canyon, into White Canyon at Kachina Bridge.

I did not have time to hike down to any of the three bridges that day, but I felt satisfied getting to see them from above in the spectacular light of the lightening skies.

Owachomo Bridge, from the View Point.

Owachomo Bridge, from the View Point.

The last turnout on the park’s loop drive is a wide open view of the Bears Ears Buttes.

The Bears Ears Buttes turnout on the loop drive.

The Bears Ears Buttes and Elk Ridge, from the turnout on the loop drive.

Photo location: Natural Bridges National Monument, southeast Utah.

Copyright 2016 Stephen J. Krieg

Moki Dugway to Muley Point

2016_UT-207-Pano

Looking down on the lower half of the Moki Dugway and the San Juan River valley. (Click on image for larger version).

It was back up the Moki Dugway, that love-it-or-fear-it stretch of Utah Highway 261 that goes from the San Juan River valley floor near Mexican Hat up onto Cedar Mesa. Up 1,100 feet in elevation in just three miles of unpaved road.

Almost to the top of the Moki Dugway...

Almost to the top of the Moki Dugway…

But once you’re familiar with it, most people come to love it. How spectacular!

Utah Hwy. 261, just below the Moki Dugway and Cedar Mesa.

Utah Hwy. 261, just below the Moki Dugway and Cedar Mesa.

From the bottom, it’s challenging to look at that all-but-sheer cliff face and wonder: how does a road go up THERE? Where? Is there such a thing as an elevator for cars?

The red cliffs of the southern escarpment of Cedar Mesa, from the Moki Dugway looking down onto Valley Of The Gods.

The red cliffs of the southern escarpment of Cedar Mesa, from the Moki Dugway looking down onto Valley Of The Gods.

There is plenty of warning that the otherwise very gentle and beautifully paved Highway 261 is going to be interrupted by something requiring caution. A series of signs at either end of the Dugway attempts to discourage drivers of large vehicles. And for passenger cars, what about “steep mountain curves, 5 MPH (etc.) do you not get?

Moki Dugway warning sign.

Moki Dugway warning sign, one of several on either end of the approach to the Dugway.

Once on top of Cedar Mesa, I took the dirt road out to Muley Point, one of my favorite spots. The country road crew had even plowed it open.

The uppermost switchback curve on the Moki Dugway.

The uppermost switchback curve on the Moki Dugway. Yep, you started way down there….

Looking down onto the Goosenecks of the San Juan River from high above was especially attractive now that they had snow on them. I like to get some shots of the rim of Cedar Mesa when I can, to give the scene some sense of scale.

Afternoon sunlight on the southern edge of Cedar Mesa, above the Goosenecks.

Afternoon sunlight on the southern edge of Cedar Mesa, above the Goosenecks.

Snow on all the layers and meanders of the Goosenecks is almost dizzying to contemplate.

Goosenecks of the San Juan River, from Muley Point.

Goosenecks of the San Juan River, from Muley Point.

Photo location: San Juan County near Mexican Hat, Utah.

Copyright 2016 Stephen J. Krieg

 

Snowy Moki Dugway, Goosenecks, and Monument Valley

The southern escarpment of Cedar Mesa, looking toward Monument Valley.

The southern escarpment of Cedar Mesa, looking toward Monument Valley.

The Christmas snow storm really cloaked Cedar Mesa, the Goosenecks of the San Juan River, and Monument Valley.

Highway 261 below Cedar Mesa.

Highway 261 below Cedar Mesa.

Driving to the southern edge of Cedar Mesa on Utah Highway 261, I once again peered down onto the San Juan River valley. Highway 261 descends the 1,100 feet from the top of Cedar Mesa down to the valley floor via a steep series of switchbacks called the Moki Dugway. The Dugway is the only section of the highway that isn’t paved, and it has no guard rails except for some concrete barriers along the outside edge of the uppermost switchback. Which gives a lot of visitors…apprehension…when they encounter it for the first time.

The Moki Dugway portion of Hwy. 261.

The Moki Dugway portion of Hwy. 261.

Seeing the cliffs and canyons of this high desert country in snow really accentuates the landforms. Shapes and formations not usually apparent stick out much more.

Goosenecks of the San Juan River, with snow.

Goosenecks of the San Juan River, with snow.

Once down the Moki Dugway, be sure to stop by Goosenecks State Park. The overlook of the San Juan River goosenecks near the hamlet of Mexican Hat is spectacular.

Monument Valley from Redlands Overlook, east of Kayenta, Arizona.

Monument Valley from Redlands Overlook, east of Kayenta, Arizona.

After driving west through Mexican Hat, the next area of interest is Monument Valley. I stopped at the Redlands Viewpoint off of Highway 163 for a nice early morning scene.

© Copyright 2015 Stephen J. Krieg

December Moonrise, Bears Ears Buttes

Early evening moonrise, from Natural Bridges Visitor Center.

Early evening moonrise, from Natural Bridges Visitor Center. (Click on image for larger version).

The December 2015 Full Moon will occur on Christmas day for the first time since 1977. Moonrise will occur just before 6 PM here in the Mountain Time Zone in the U.S. That’s about 45 minutes after sunset, so landscape photos at that time will be black, or nearly so, by the time the moon clears the eastern horizon.

Visitor Center at Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah.

Visitor Center at Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah, with snowy Deer Flat and the Woodenshoe Buttes in the distance.

So, as usual the time to get great moonrise landscape shots is the day before. Sometimes two days before, depending on when moonrise and sunset times occur.

Moonrise over the Bears Ears Buttes.

Moonrise over the Bears Ears Buttes.

This time it occurred two days before, on December 23. That’s because the moon would reach 100 percent illumination at about 4 AM on the 25th, making the evening of the 24th the effective rise of the Full Moon. So one day before that was landscape photography time.

I was heading out to one of my favorite vistas on the 23rd for possible sunset shots when I saw the moon rising over the Bears Ears Buttes. I got some shots from the parking lot at the Visitor Center at Natural Bridges National Monument, then looked for a clear vista of the Bears Ears somewhat closer. The pinyon-juniper forest was in the way from the views on the entrance road, so I parked and hurriedly trudged into the woods through the snow looking for a high spot, a clearing, or both. I certainly didn’t have much time; I would have to get lucky.

Moonrise over Bears Ears, from pinyon pine-Utah juniper forest, Natural Bridges.

Moonrise over Bears Ears, from pinyon pine-Utah juniper forest, Natural Bridges.

I was fortunate to find a spot within about five minutes. So I shot, waited, and shot some more as sunset neared.

The recent snowfalls, including another heavy snow squall a couple hours previous, had the surrounding cliffs of Elk Ridge and Deer Flat freshened up with even more white than in the morning. Indeed, what was showing to the north of me was competing even with the moonrise scene. Because the Woodenshoe Buttes were lit up with evening light, too, only more from the side than the Bear Ears were.

The Woodenshoe Buttes in snow, from Natural Bridges.

The Woodenshoe Buttes in snow, from Natural Bridges.

Finally the sun was down. I was hoping for some alpenglow, but there were no clouds above the setting sun to create that tonight. I contented myself with the last pink clouds to the east above the Bears Ears, now deep in the shadow of dusk.

Last of the sunset colors over the Bears Ears.

Last of the sunset colors over the Bears Ears.

Photo location: Natural Bridges National Monument, San Juan County, southeast Utah.

Copyright 2015 Stephen J. Krieg

 

Canyon Country: The Snow Awakens

2015_UT-12221-Pano

Still snowing from the rim of White Canyon, looking down onto Sipapu Natural Bridge. Yes, it’s hard to pick out from way up here. (click on image for larger version).

Finally, a real snow in canyon country. We’ve had several nice teasers, but this was all the weather service forecast, for once.

2015_UT-12249-Pano-2

Down the trail to Sipapu Bridge in White Canyon.

I’m a snow pessimist. I never believe we will get as much as they forecast. Not until I’m sweeping it all off of my truck the day after. And sometimes not even then.

2015_UT-12439

Cedar Mesa and White Canyon cliffs in fresh snow. The storm isn’t done yet, either.

My attitude is: when the deciduous trees and shrubs are bare, coat that (relatively) drab landscape with snow. Who cares if it’s cold out? That’s what indoor heating and insulating clothing are for. Your car’s heater has been lonely all summer. Use it.

2015_UT-12241-Pano

The metal stairs near the top of Sipapu Bridge Trail.

At Natural Bridges National Monument in southeast Utah, the sandstone capping Cedar Mesa is beige, or a light gray. So different than the red rock canyons and arches that are iconic of much of southern Utah.

2015_UT-12386-Pano

Looking down on Sipapu Bridge from The Ledge at Vulture Point.

I take the park’s Loop Drive (technically, Bridge View Drive on the maps) to the Sipapu Bridge trailhead parking lot. Sipapu Bridge is the mightiest one of the three in the park. The second largest natural bridge in America, or even on this side of the world. (Rainbow Bridge near Lake Powell is the largest on this side of the globe; there are four in China even larger).

2015_UT-12289-Pano

Sipapu Bridge in snow, from above. Notice the rivulets of melting snow.

The trail down to Sipapu Bridge is the steepest in the park: dropping 500 feet from rim to canyon bottom in just 0.6 mile. There are even three wooden ladders to climb down, a favorite with kids. They think they’re cool. Adults are mixed in their opinion. I like them, how they were made from nearby wood to blend in with the landscape.

2015_UT-12395

The upper ladder on Sipapu Bridge Trail.

There were icy patches on the trail before this latest snow fell. They are now covered by several inches of snow, and the sun never shines here in the winter, it’s a north facing canyon cliff. So I have my traction devices on my boots, and they work well. Lightweight but tough and sharp edged, just what I wanted out of them.

2015_UT-12309-Pano

Sipapu Bridge, wide panoramic image merge.

It’s still snowing on and off. So quiet you can hear a raven’s squawk or chortle from a long ways. I have the place all to myself. Me and the ravens.

At The Ledge, the approximate halfway point down to Sipapu Bridge, I walk out to the point for more photos of the mighty span still a ways below. This is called Vulture Point by the rangers because it’s a favorite hangout of Turkey vultures in season. But they left in October and won’t be back until spring.

Down the trail from The Ledge, switchbacking down, down through the Gambel Oak among the boulders.

2015_UT-12257-Pano

Down the trail through the Gamel oak, Pinyon pine, Utah juniper, and boulders.

To my turnaround spot: where the trail touches the abandoned meander where the stream once flowed around the rock wall that had no opening then. Until one day, one more big storm and flash flood with muddy water that slides and rolls much larger boulders than clear water ever could, one more episode of boulders bashing and rocks scraping away, and a hole in the rock fin was created. And slowly enlarged with countless more events. Until the stream had a large enough shortcut to bypass the old meander. Bye-bye. This way’s faster. And water always takes the fastest way. It doesn’t mess around.

2015_UT-12353-Pano

Sipapu Bridge and melting snow in the abandoned meander.

But enough geology stuff. I like the spot because it’s low enough in the canyon to show the sky through the span — the opening — of the bridge, while close enough to show off its mass. Earlier this year I once again paused at this spot while a first time visitor remarked: “It’s even bigger than I thought it would be.”

Which poses a bit of a problem, photographically. There you are, gawking up at the lovely beast, and you’re so close that only an ultra wide angle lens could fit it all into the frame. Which doesn’t portray its immense size very well.

2015_UT-12367-Pano

Sipapu Bridge and manzanita.

So why not hike back up the trail until you’re somewhat farther away? Because then you’re not low enough for that lovely glimpse of sky through the bridge’s span.

What to do, what to do? What I do is the high resolution panoramic image. A series of overlapping shots to take it all in, then merged in Adobe Photoshop. And with today’s Lightroom 6 (which runs on the Photoshop engine) you can do it insanely easily.

2015_UT-12350

Melting snow flowing down the flanks of Sipapu Bridge.

From above I had noticed the rivulets of melting snow running down the side of the bridge. Now I was standing where they had collected and were draining down this side of the abandoned meander. I admired the patterns they formed.

2015_UT-12374

Back up the Sipapu Bridge Trail. Only my footprints, I had it all to myself.

At some point it was time to admit I was satiated with the experience, and begin the steep sweaty hike back up the cliff face. Calories well burned, especially during an experience like this.

Photo location: Natural Bridges National Monument, San Juan County, southeast Utah.

© Copyright 2015 Stephen J. Krieg

Early Winter At Cedar Mesa

Cedar Mesa, Comb Ridge, and the Abajo mountain range, from Highway 95.

Cedar Mesa, Comb Ridge, and the Abajo mountain range, from Highway 95.

At November’s end, the Abajo Mountains are lightly shrouded with new snow. Sunsets can bring alpenglow through the clouds just after the sun is below the horizon. And more snow is on the way.

Sunset colors and snow clouds over Moss Back Butte, from Natural Bridges National Monument.

Sunset colors and snow clouds over Moss Back Butte, from Natural Bridges National Monument.

Bring on December in the high desert canyon country of southeast Utah and the Four Corners region.

Snow curtains at dusk, from Natural Bridges National Monument.

Snow curtains at dusk, from Natural Bridges National Monument.

Photo locations: San Juan County, southeast Utah.

©  Copyright 2015 Stephen J. Krieg

Rise Of The Hunter’s Moon, Valley Of The Gods

October Full Moon at dusk, San Juan River valley near Mexican Hat, Utah.

October Full Moon rising at dusk, San Juan River valley near Mexican Hat, Utah.

Last month’s (September’s) Full Moon was the beautiful lunar eclipse. For the October Full Moon, I tried a different landscape, in part because I didn’t have time to get to where some mountain peaks would be the foreground. You do what you can.

Sunset on Raplee Anticline and San Juan River valley, Utah-Arizona.

Sunset on Raplee Anticline and San Juan River valley, Utah-Arizona.

So I drove to the southern edge of Cedar Mesa in southeast Utah. There it looms a thousand feet above the valley floor, with red buttes and spires below. It’s looking down on what is called the Valley Of The Gods, a rough but fairly popular road on Bureau Of Land Management (BLM) land.

Highway 261 bisects Cedar Mesa, north to south, before descending 1,100 feet in three miles via the Moki Dugway to the San Juan River valley near Mexican Hat, Utah.

I drove roughly a third of the way down the Dugway, to where there is a wide turnout and an easy walk across the sandstone slickrock to a point looking east and southeast.

I was in position in plenty of time, and waited. The full moon would rise right around sunset. In the meantime I enjoyed the last reddish rays of the sun on Lime Ridge on the Navajo Nation, geologically called the Raplee Anticline, to the south of the San Juan River near Mexican Hat.

October moonrise over Valley Of The Gods, from the Moki Dugway.

October moonrise over Valley Of The Gods, from the Moki Dugway.

Then, there it was, right on schedule. White-blue at first, then deepening to a soft yellow as the blue of the Earth’s Shadow and the pink gradations of the Venus Band deepened as the sun was set below the horizon.

On the way back up to Cedar Mesa I stopped for a wide angle photo of the Moki Dugway with the moon.

Full Moon from Moki Dugway, Highway 261, Cedar Mesa, Utah.

Full Moon from Moki Dugway, Highway 261, Cedar Mesa, Utah.

In the morning, it was time for the other end of the Full Moon night: Moonset. I drove west this time, toward Moss Back Butte and the Tables Of The Sun mesas. A huge advantage to photographing moonset is that the moon is already visible, not hidden below the eastern horizon like it is at moonrise. It’s going down, and you have some time to position yourself where the landscape will make for an interesting composition as it gets light at dawn.

Moonset at dawn and Moss Back Butte.

Moonset at dawn and Moss Back Butte.

But not an infinite amount of time. So I chose a spot on Highway 95 where Moss Back Butte would be the dominant landform in the photo.

Then the sun rose and lit up the Red House Cliffs, and this period of my shooting day came to a close. Onto another subject.

Sunrise on Red House Cliffs, San Juan County, Utah.

Sunrise on Red House Cliffs, San Juan County, Utah.

Photo location: San Juan County, southeast Utah.

© Copyright 2015 Stephen J. Krieg