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The Virgin River and the Watchman
The Virgin River and the Watchman

Zion in Autumn

Cleaved from the heart of the Colorado Plateau the powers that be have hewn some of nature’s best artistry from ancient sandstone then someone named it Zion.

Zion National Park oozes the type of beauty that stops us in our tracks, gaping in awe. Zion is gorgeous any time of year but with that extra splash of the reds and golds of autumn make a fine exclamation mark to the grandeur that is Zion. Nature's extreme forces and the violence of wind, rain, wind, snow, and ice have teamed up to created a perfect photographer’s destination.

Zion’s Virgin River has carved its way through a couple thousand feet of Colorado plateau sandstone and a 15-mile-long gash that reaches nearly half a mile into the earth. This colorful chasm of ochre and red shades the winding course of the Virgin River as well as the benches and coulees of the descending vertical face sandstone from the harsh desert sun.

The juxtaposition of rich mountain vegetation, cold streams and ochre desert rock provides a backdrop for one of nature’s unique autumn displays. The blessings of autumn fire up the bright yellows of the valley’s cottonwoods that line the river and brilliant reds of the mountain maple that grace shadowy hillsides. The sculptured cliffs of Zion Canyon provide visitors with landscapes of unmatched beauty and diversity. These unique sandstone cliffs can range in color from cream, to pink, too red.

Because of Zion’s proliferation of nature's palette artist and photographers have been drawn to Zion National Park ever since daguerreotype process photography and paintbrushes came west to capture the west’s infinite variety of moods. The incredible landscape of Zion is a magnificent display of beauty that is a perpetual source of inspiration and renewal for nature lovers, artists, and photographers alike. Zion has tickled the fancy of filmmakers as well, it has served up the scenery for more than twenty-five movies, including, most notably, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Notable landmarks like the Court of the Patriarchs, The Watchman, Temple of Sinawava, The Preacher and the Pulpit, Big Bend and little bend all are great photo fodder during autumn’s colorful show. Zion possesses one of the areas richest treasure troves for intrepid explorers willing to match their wits, their legs, and their fingers against Mother Nature. Hiking destinations like Angels Landing, Observation Point, the Narrows and the Subway are a bit beyond what most fifty-something photographer’s ability but for the healthy and young they are extraordinary destinations.

The Zion – Mount Carmel Highway is the route out of the valley and to the high country to the east. Along the way, the highway navigates six switchbacks and two tunnels. Many trails and pullouts are located along the road and there are impressive hoodoos and twisted rock sculptures as you wind your way up along Pine Creek. East Zion’s Checkerboard Mesa’s brown and white slick rock sandstone peaks and the, and high country washes host colorful cottonwoods offer up some variety to the valley bottom, Plan time to enjoy the splendor of this scenic byway and main highway through Zion.

Kolob Terrace road can take to the high country of West Zion if you prefer mountain top aspens to riparian cottonwood for your fall foto fodder. Zion’s high country Aspens reach peak color a couple of weeks before the cottonwoods of the valley bottom.

If a trip to the national park requires isn’t complete without wildlife encounters, mule deer are abundant along the canyon floor and some decent bucks can be easily photographed by the early riser. Desert Bighorn Sheep can be found in the high county, and I have photographed them at Checkerboard Mesa.

Zion’s extreme light and shadow cast by Zion’s towering cliffs often create exposure difficulties and are tricky to photograph, we often need to bracket our images for High Dynamic Range processing (HDR). Zion National Park images can be some of the most scenic and visually rewarding when successful light, exposure and processing are achieved. This is especially important when shooting from Zion’s famous tripod holes on the bridge shooting the Watchman at sunset. On sunny days which is all to often in the Southwest, the mountains of the Hurricane Plateau shade the Virgin River at sunset creating a dynamic range crisis for this iconic spot.

Autumn isn’t the only time of year for a great shoot at Zion. Winter snow offers up a great juxtaposition between the red rock and the white snow and spring and early summer provides an abundance of water for the waterfalls.

Beware though, between April and November you can’t take cars up Zion Canyon; you are required to ride a bus which can be very arduous when of a photo trip.

Once you experience Zion, you will long to return again and again. Zion National Park with its breathtaking landscapes and incredible rock formations has enough photo opportunities to keep a photographer busy for a lifetime. I only wish I could be there more.



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