Monday, November 9, 2009

Autumn's Last Stand at Zion National Park

I've heard other photographers gush about the magnificent autumn scenery at Zion National Park for a number of years now and I finally decided to check out all this magnificence for myself this year. Well, after a six day stint in the park, I've come to the resounding conclusion that all the accolades were well deserved! The juxtaposition of the red sandstone walls with the yellows of all the cottonwoods lining the Virgin River as it snakes down the Zion's enormous canyon was pure candy for this photographer!

The Virgin River Leading To The Watchman

My two main objectives for this trip were certainly no revelation to any other photographer visiting the area. I wanted to see and photograph both the Subway and the Virgin Narrows in all their autumn glory. The Subway is located in the lesser visited Kolob Terrace section of the park and requires a backcountry permit in order to undertake the 9 mile round trip to see it. It is actually a slot canyon that the Left Fork of North Creek has carved out in such a manner that it takes on the appearance of a New York subway tunnel. Add a healthy dose of reflected light which enters this tunnel from a brightly lit wall adjacent to it and you have one of the more unique photographic opportunites found anywhere.

The Subway and the Left Fork of North Creek

The hike is an experience in itself as there is really no set trail that takes you from trailhead to final destination. Instead there are trail fragments on one or both sides of the creek and you utilize route finding skills to find the best way. Sometimes this involved scrambles up the hillsides to get around waterfalls and rockfalls, sometimes the best way forward was by walking up the creek itself. My research prepared me for this and I bought a pair of Five Ten canyoneering boots along with neoprene socks to make the watery portions of the hike easier to handle. All in all I probably spent about a third of the hike in the creek and had a blast doing it. The biggest drag of the journey was the steep, ~500 foot climb that was needed to get out of the canyon and back to the trailhead. After 8 miles of hiking, to say I didn't enjoy this ascent was a bit of an understatement!! But the beauty of both the Subway and the creek in general made it all worthwhile.

Cascades along the Left Fork of North Creek

The Virgin Narrows is a similar hike in that it requires a watery trek up a cold waterway, but after that the similarities end in my book. The scenery in the narrows is dominated by sandstone cliffs soaring as high as 1500 ft and as narrow as 22 ft across! It is quite a site to behold. While I can say that I really didn't find any one particular scene in the narrows that compared in magnificence to the Subway, the myriad of excellent photographic opportunites around just about every corner made for a much more interesting trip overall.

Autumn Foliage in the Virgin Narrows

My only regret in the narrows was that I didn't get to spend enough time there. My long hike to the Subway had reaggravated an old, nagging foot injury causing the last couple of miles to become a sufferfest. While I was able to make it a little past the junction with Orderville Canyon (about 2 1/2 miles from the trailhead at the Temple of Sinawava), I had hoped to go much further. I'll just have to save that for a future trip!

Hiker in the Virgin Narrows

The remainder of my trip was spent checking out the various vantage points along the Zion scenic drive in the main canyon along with a short side trip to the Kolob Canyon section of the park for one evening. Because of my foot issue my hiking options became somewhat limited, but it wasn't really a big deal as there were plenty of scenes to shoot on the colorful canyon floor. All in all, it was a fantastic that I hope to make on an annual basis!

The Moon over the Towers of the Virgin at Sunrise

To see more images from my trip, click on the link below...


  1. Hey Guy,
    I've been awaiting this post from you. You really captured some spectacular images from this trip ('Watchman' horiz., 'Moon over Towers' and 'Cascades', in particular). Probably the best cascades shot I've seen yet this year!
    I wanted to take this hike myself, but after seeing how many other photographers were going, not counting various workshops, I took a pass. Was it pretty crowded? Did you go by yourself?

    I'll see you down the road someday...


  2. Thanks John! I can certainly understand your dislike of the crowds. I probably ran into a dozen or more people the day I photographed the Subway (5 or 6 of whom were shooting it alongside me...too crowded for my tastes in such small confines). On the other hand, it was nice to know that if I injured myself over the course of that rugged hike, someone would have come upon me in fairly short order.