Before getting into Bryce, let me describe the journey there. Along the way, we spent three days in and around Zion, lodging at the Bumbleberry Inn. My first shot in Zion was taken just after sunset, while still in the "Blue Hour", also known as twilight. This shot was taken from the balcony of our room. In addition to some light from the recently set sun, there was also a three quarter moon overhead. That's why the red cliffs appear so clearly detailed.
Zion at twilight
The following morning, I hiked to Canyon Overlook. To get there, take highway 9 (the only road) into the park. When highway 9 crosses the Virgin River, continue over the bridge and up the switchbacks towards East Zion. By the way, one of the advantages of being at Zion in the Winter is that you can drive your car anywhere in the park. You can always drive towards East Zion and on to the town of Mt Carmel Junction, but you can't turn left at the bridge and continue deeper into Zion towards Angel's Landing and the Narrows. During peak season, the park gets between 4 and 6 million visitors per year. During the busy months, you may not turn left at the bridge and continue into the canyon unless you are a registered guest of the Zion Lodge. To get to the Narrows, Emerald Pools and Angel's Landing, you must leave your car in Springdale and take the free park shuttle.
Another advantage of being there in the Winter for this particular hike is that there are only a couple dozen parking places at the trailhead. Canyon Overlook is a popular trail and I was lucky to get a spot.
Heading up the switchbacks of the Zion - Mt Carmel highway
The overlook at the end of this trail is above a giant alcove known appropriately enough as The Great Arch. If you were to fall off the overlook, the drop is over 1,000 feet.
Though it is called the Great Arch, it is actually an alcove. An arch is like a tunnel. You can go through it. An alcove is more like a cave. It is an overhang up against a wall.
The Great Arch
To get to the trailhead, you must first pass through the Zion-Mt Carmel Tunnel. This tunnel is an amazing work of engineering. It was built starting in 1927 and was opened on July 4, 1930. At the time of it's construction, it was the longest tunnel in the United States at 1.1 miles in length. The laborer's who carved it into the mountain worked from the top and the bottom, meeting in the middle. The area was so remote, they had to use mules to get to their worksites. That also mean't bringing their food, tents, tools and other supplies. The fact that the two teams met with their tunnels perfectly aligned seems to me to be a miracle.
They also built the tunnel to create a sense of awe and wonder at the beauty of the canyon. When you enter Zion from the East, your first glimpses of the canyon are from windows or "galleries" cut in the side of the tunnel. When you finally emerge, you are blinded by the beauty of the canyon. It has a similar emotional impact as driving into Yosemite for the first time and entering through the Wawona tunnel. It is a spectacular view.
Window from the tunnel
The parking lot is on the right as soon as you emerge from the tunnel. If you miss it, there is some parking on the opposite side of the road, though you may have to drive quite a way to find a safe place to turn around.
The trailhead is on the left side of the road but there is a crosswalk and a park employee there to stop traffic and help you cross if need be.
Near the start of the trail
The trail goes through a few alcoves
There was one wet/icy spot with a little exposure
The trail is fairly level, gaining only 140 feet in a half mile. If you have a fear of heights, you may find the trail a little disconcerting but there are railings anywhere with serious exposure. The wet and narrow spot above was the only section to give me pause.
Just a little further to go...
The trail levels out near the top
The railing helps to prevent falling off the edge.
View without the railing
The view above is taken just to the left of the area with the railing. I tried to get a little perspective and leading lines into the canyon by using the rocks to the left.
Heading back down
This section would be impossible without the railings
Canyon Overlook is a pleasant hike. Not long or particularly strenuous, it offers an excellent view of Zion canyon without you having to provide all the elevation gain with your own feet. The view is best in the morning, as the canyon is front lit at that time. ( Canyon Overlook is on the East side of Zion canyon, looking towards the West with the sun at your back in the morning). I highly recommend making the hike if you can find parking. If not, I suggest continuing on up East Zion road. There are beautiful rock formations and often, wild borregos. See my previous Zion blog for more on that.
Further up the Zion - Mt Carmel Highway
After the hike, I headed further up the Zion - Mt Carmel highway, hoping to see wild borregos. I had seen them almost every time I went that way in the last few years. No luck today however, so I stopped and took a few shots before heading back to Springdale.
Later that afternoon, my wife and I went back into Zion Canyon to hike to the Emerald Pools. We have been there in April, October and last March, but not so recently after a snowstorm. We were in for a treat.
Footbridge over the Virgin River at Emerald Pools Trail
Along the trail, we saw a family of mule deer. The are called mule deer because of their long, floppy ears.
Mule deer along the trail
Trail to Emerald Pools
Snow along the trail
When we rounded the trail to the alcove below the lower pool, we were delighted to see that the seeps and drips from above had turned into icicles and a frosty wonderland.
Icicles under the alcove
Snowy path below the pool
This is as far as we went along the trail. The trail to the pool above was pretty icy and slick, so I stayed and photographed here.
For most of the year, water drips off the cliff above and gathers in a pool below. Though the drip line from the overhang is beyond the trail, it is usually misty when walking on the trail. This time though, the mist was turning to snow or slush as it fell, turning the trail into a fairyland of ice crystals.
Icy pool with red rock beyond
I don't think I did it justice. The place was beautiful but there were about 10 stops of light between the highlights and the shadows. Also, it is a challenge to compose a good shot when standing in light drizzle and snow. In the photo above, you can see all the white dots against the dark trees. That's what was falling on me. Later, I tried a close crop of the scene above (below). I'm glad my camera has sufficient resolution (50+MP) to make a crop that retains detail.
Close up of ice crusted branches
After hiking back to the car, I got my 600 mm lens and took close ups of the mule deer family on the other side of the Virgin river.
Wild turkey by the parking lot
On the way back down the canyon to Springdale, I just had to stop at the Zion bridge. There's always a group of photographers there near sunset. I used a graduated neutral density filter to darken the sky a little (3 stops) and balance the light. This shot looks especially good in the Fall, when the cottonwoods turn yellow. Of course, some under lit clouds would help too.
View from Zion bridge
The next day, we decided to check out the Johnson Farm Dinosaur Tracks Museum in nearby St. George. The fascinating part about the museum is that it is built right over the dinosaur tracks, so many of them comprise the "floor" of the museum. Visitors walk on raised walkways above the tracks and read signs explaining what is below. There are also a number of exhibits with assembled skeletons, dinosaur models and explanations of what is on display. About an hour and a half was enough for my wife and me.
Since we had heard that there was a pie shop in nearby Veyo that was voted best pies in Utah, we decided to check it out. Veyo is about 18 miles outside of St. George but was near another place I wanted to visit, Snow Canyon. I don't believe the town of Veyo has a traffic light or stop sign, but the sign for the pie shop will get your attention.
While the fruit pies we sampled were pretty good, we still think the best pies in Utah are to be found in the little town of Fruita. Sorry, Veyo. I will say that the guy behind the counter couldn't have been friendlier and in all fairness, the best reviews were for cream pies (which are not available in Fruita).
After Veyo, we headed back to St. George by way of Snow Canyon State Park. Snow Canyon is an interesting geological feature. The usual layers of twisted sandstone found throughout the Southwest were buried under a lava flow. There is a cinder cone near the Northern entrance to the park. It looks like much of the lava flowed down onto the parkland from around that cone.
We decided to take the "Lava Tube" trail walk.
Snow Canyon lava field
The lava tube walk passes some collapsed lava tubes. You can see into the tubes from the trail. In the photo below, you can see where the top collapsed, exposing the tube below.
Lava tube in the foreground
I loved the vivid contrast of the multicolored rock layers.
Near the South end of the park.
We did a little more exploring, including a slot canyon called Jenny's Canyon before leaving the park. We decided to come back some springtime to see what it looks like in bloom.
Behind the Bumbleberry Inn
The next morning after breakfast, we wandered out in back of the Bumbleberry Inn to check out the farm animals there. We thought it might be fun for our grandkids to see them, especially the goats.
From there, we drove on to Bryce, stopping at Red Canyon to eat lunch that we had packed in Springdale. Food is something you have to plan for at Bryce in the Winter. Other than free breakfast served in the hotel, there is only one restaurant for at least 50 miles. It is not to our liking, so we pack in our lunches and dinners. One great resource is the Sol Foods Market in Springdale. They are open all year and make great deli sandwiches. They also have most foods you would buy at home.
Afternoon from Inspiration Point
After an early dinner, we went back into the park to Bryce Point for the twilight. This is when I realized that most tourists and even photographers were missing one of the best times at Bryce. Everyone was leaving when we arrived. There was no more sun on the red rocks (and it was getting cold), so everyone left.
In reality, Bryce looks more beautiful at dusk than it does for most of the day. The Earth's shadow (penumbra) begins the show by darkening the horizon. If you are lucky, clouds may be catching the last deeply colored rays of the sunset above that. The hoodoos below seem to glow as the sky darkens, especially when rimmed with snow.
From a photographic perspective, the light becomes even. You don't need to darken the sky with a filter or blend multiple exposures. You just need a tripod so you can lengthen the exposure without raising the ISO or widening the aperture, getting a low noise, back to front focused image. It's a great time to shoot! Yet for the three evenings we were there, my wife and I had the place to ourselves.
Blue hour at Bryce Point
The following morning, I went back to Bryce Point for the sunrise. I arrived before 6:00 AM. It was cold at 19 degrees but that was warmer than last year at 7 degrees. The lack of wind made it comfortable except that I had my hands outside of gloves most of the time to better work the camera.
A tip on keeping your hands warm - last year I had thin cotton gloves with surgical latex gloves over them. That provided some warmth but also allowed better contact with the camera controls than a thicker glove or one with a slick surface. Unfortunately, I forgot to bring the latex gloves this year.
Once again, I had Bryce Point to myself. No other photographers (or anyone else) arrived until after sunrise. As with the dusk, my pre-dawn shots are some of my favorites.
This is the point of the title to this article; Red and Blue - Bryce Part II. The "blue hours" of sunrise and sunset are some ofthe best times for shooting at Bryce.
Sunrise from Bryce Point
Looking to the West from Bryce Point (Bryce Point is the only vantage point where you can do that), I saw the light hitting high clouds while the East facing wall of Bryce amphitheater was beginning to be front lit.
First light in the clouds at Bryce Point
By 6:20, the sun pierced the horizon. To get the starburst appearance of the sun in the shot below, I knew I wanted a small aperture to capture the sun as it was split by the horizon line. For clear focus from front to back, a small aperture is also needed. To get clearest possible image, I used my 24mm, f1.4 prime lens on my Canon 5DS (50+ MP) body. Finally, I used a reverse neutral density filter to block out the brightest light from the sun while allowing light from the darker canyon and upper sky to come through unobstructed. The filter I used is part of the Colby Brown Signature Edition filters by Finecrest.
Sunburst from Bryce Point
To give you an idea of the clarity of resolution, I will next show a crop of the image above.
Bush at lower right
I used that combination of lens, camera body and settings for all the images I thought I might want to print large.
After breakfast, a nap and lunch, we drove out towards Rainbow Point at the South end of the park. If you'v never been to Bryce, you should know that Bryce is not a canyon, though it is often referred to as such. It is properly called a series of amphitheaters, but the best way to understand the lay of the land is to visualize a long, high, North-South running plateau that has eroded on the East side to form Bryce and on the West side to form Cedar Breaks. The Southwest side of the eroding plateau forms Zion and to the Southeast are the Vermillion cliffs. The Paria river basin is the vast lower land that you look over from the rim of Bryce. In that basin is the Escalante wilderness, Kodachrome Basin and other beautiful places.
Bryce is at the uppermost geologic layer (most recently deposited) of a vast layer cake that forms the Colorado Plateau. The reddish layer that makes up the hoodoos was deposited around 56 million years ago, when Bryce was part of a large inland sea. This was also the time of the last great global warming period, the so-called Paleocene - Eocene extinction). The oldest layer at 1,745 million years of age, is at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. This layer (the Vishnu Schist) was once part of a mountain range that rivaled the Himalayas.
Between these time periods, the region from Wyoming through the Gulf of Mexico was an inland sea and tropical lowlands where dinosaurs roamed 270 million years ago. That's the red sandstone you see around Arches and Capitol Reef. A large white layer is what remains of ancient, half-mile deep sand dunes that covered the an area greater than the Sahara for 10 million years. You can see a lot of that in Zion (Checkerboard Mesa and West Temple are good examples).
All these layers of upthrust mountains that eroded to sand, got buried and compressed under the weight of oceans, turned to rock and were upthrust again reveal the geologic history of the Earth better than anywhere on the planet.
Anyway, you can drive South on the only road into the park, following the rim of the East-facing escarpment. The farthest point South is called Rainbow Point. Last year, my wife and I went snow-shoeing at Rainbow Point. It generally has more snow because it is above 9,000 feet elevation, while Bryce Point is about 8,000 feet.
The most interesting spot along that road in my opinion is Natural Bridge Arch. Given that we had stopped at every vista along that road last year, we only stopped at the arch and a couple of other spots this year.
Natural Bridge Arch
Again we went back to have an early dinner so we could be at the rim during the blue hour. We were especially excited because the full moon would rise just as the sun was setting. I figured it would provide very even light on the canyon and the sky. We were not disappointed.
I must say the nature photography is an excuse to get out and soak in beauty. Think of a time when you had the leisure to watch an entire sunset. How serene and refreshing. Now imagine taking a week for the express purpose of seeking beauty. It's a great way to spend time with your sweetheart.
Full moon rise from Bryce Point
Moonrise reflected at a pool near Cannonville
By the way, the town of Cannonville (pop, 167) is about 6-7 miles away as the crow flies. You can see a fair amount of detail with a prime lens.
The next morning, I was at the rim again before dawn. Again, I had the place to myself.
Sunrise from Sunrise Point
Morning light looking down from Bryce Point
After "catching some rays" early the next morning from Sunrise Point, Eileen and I decided to hike to Mossy Cave after breakfast. We had never been there before and it seemed like a good way to get down among some hoodoos without hiking the icy trails that lead down from the rim. Also, the light in Bryce amphitheater is not as interesting during the middle of the day.
The Mossy Cave is an overhang of rock with water seeping out of the cave wall. The hike is down at the lower end of Bryce amphitheater, close to the town of Tropic.
The town was named Tropic by pioneers who wanted to attract people to their town by promoting the idea that it was so warm you could even grow cherries and peaches. I don't know if they never visited the actual tropics or were just prone to hyperbole.
Start of Mossy Cave hike
The hike is a gentle half mile that follows the stream uphill. As you can see from this photo, there was snow and ice on the trail.
Looking back down the canyon from the bridge Water Canyon
The trail turns left uphill and away from the creek and continues a short distance to the Mossy Cave. Imagine our surprise and delight to find it hung with icicles instead of moss.
Mossy Cave is not so mossy
Right by where the trail leaves the creek to head up to Mossy Cave is an overlook with a spectacular view of a waterfall. Again to our delight, it was frozen!
Water Canyon Waterfall - frozen.
Turns out that the creek and waterfall are the result of a man-made feature called the "Tropic Ditch". This "ditch" is a remarkable piece of work as it was dug in 1889 to 1892 to carry water from the East Fork of the Sevier river up on the plateau, to the town of Tropic down below. In those days, there was no mechanized equipment to help. The work was all done by 40 men with picks, shovels and the help of some mules. The ditch was - are you ready for this? - about 10 -15 feet deep and over 10 miles long!
I guess anyone who can dig a ditch like that through rocky land with no power tools could grow mangoes and coconuts in their Tropic paradise as far as I'm concerned. Eileen and I became interested in the ditch and she found where it crosses under the hotel complex in Bryce City on it's way down to Tropic. Next year, we plan to hike out to where it drops into the amphitheater.
I walked back to the car to grab my 600mm lens to get this close-up without treading off the path.
I was glad I had that lens loaded on my camera body because as we drove back to Bryce, guess who we saw near the road?
That evening, we went out again to the rim, this time to Sunset Point. It seemed only fitting to go out there once at sunset.
The day had been warmer, so the trail was no longer icy. I decided to walk down the trail to get some shots from that vantage. Perhaps 150 yards down the trail is a view of a striking hoodoo known as Thor's Hammer. I decided to take some shots there and scope out the area for the next morning.
Thor's Hammer at dusk
Notice the even light and the Earth's shadow in the sky near the horizon.
Trail by Thor's Hammer in the pre-dawn light.
The following morning, I was again at the rim before dawn. I went down the trail and found my spot. This morning I did hear a busload of Asian tourists up on the rim hooting and hollering in the pre-dawn. I guess I can't complain. I have whooped and hollered at the sun rising over Bryce.
When the sun did rise, I had the reverse graduated neutral density filter on so I could shoot straight at the sun and balance out the light. None of those photos turned out well because that filter is designed to provide a hard, 3-stop darkening at the horizon line. When hoodoos break that line, they look unnaturally dark at the skyline. Oops.
Shortly thereafter, the tourists walked past me down the trail, holding their selfie sticks. They were still making a lot of noise after they had walked around a corner of the trail. Suddenly a movement caught my eye. A mule deer was coming straight up the side of the canyon from the base of Thor's Hammer.
I quickly grabbed my other camera (Canon 6D) with the 600 mm lens and began shooting. When the mule deer got up to the trail about 20 yards away, he looked at me, looked down the trail towards the sounds of the tourists and paused. I pointed my camera down and looked away to give him a little room to maneuver. When I heard him move, I turned to see him sprinting up the hill towards the rim. I felt privileged to share a moment.
Mule deer inside Bryce
I packed up my tripod and took a few hand-held shots, breaking the sun into a starburst against the edges of a nearby hoodoo.
Starburst by Thor's Hammer
I also used the 600mm to isolate particular hoodoos as the morning light illuminated them. That's the fascinating part about the light at Bryce in the morning. Sunlight bounces off some hoodoos and onto others making a subtle kaleidoscope of glowing red and white rock that shifts from place to place s the sun rises in the sky. That's the red hour at Bryce.
So there you have it. One secret to getting good shots at Bryce is to focus on the blue hours of pre-dawn and dusk, and the red hour of sunrise. The rest of the day can be devoted to hiking, resting and developing your images.
The other thought to keep in mind at Bryce is to try to find your subject. Everywhere you look is amazing and of course you'll want to shoot everything. The grander your vista however, the smaller and more confusing it looks to your friends back home.
The trick is to isolate one thing of interest, find leading lines, find something close that can be the subject with the red rock serving as a background. Find a path or a person or some other element that tells a story. The key is to know what is the subject of your image.
The shot above is about the starburst. The shot below is about the glow on that particular set of hoodoos. They were a quarter mile away. I used the long lens to isolate them. That's one way to narrow your focus but certainly not the only way.
I hope this helps you prepare for your own trip to Zion and Bryce.