Utah And Arizona Deserts 2022 Trip Report

By Jeff Vanuga on Jul 27, 2022

My long history with Utah and the American Southwest began decades ago as a college student while attending Utah State University, where I spent years living in Logan and then drifting around the state before permanently moving to Wyoming.  The region has been documented by countless photographers, writers and environmental activists who share a passion for the geologic wonders and culture.  David Muench, Tom Till, Eliot Porter, Edward Abbey and Terry Tempest Williams are just a small fraction of the people who have influenced this part of the world with their photography and environmental activism.  The area strikes a spiritual chord in my soul as well since I spent countless days backpacking, hiking, mountain biking, kayaking, horse packing, photographing and years of exploration. So, when I was asked to lead the trip down in the Vermillion Cliffs and Grand Staircase Escalante region for JVO it was a resounding yes.

Our trip started in Page, Arizona where we met and greeted participants at a local hotel, enjoyed our welcome dinner and began a few teaching lectures on night photography along with some basic Photoshop post processing instructions. The emphasis was making night photography simple and fun for anyone with a DSLR camera regardless of experience. All covered material was available to clients including slide shows and pdfs for review when they returned home for future reference. We covered post processing images in Photoshop and alternatives in Lightroom, camera settings, protocols for shooting in the field and a lighting process in photography called Low Level Lighting (LLL). This method of lighting is very subtle on the subject and more importantly barely perceptible to the human eye. It offers a solution for one exposure lighting and does not cause light pollution like using flashlights or million-watt candle power spotlights. In addition, traditional light painting is now illegal in National Parks in the US. LLL is an acceptable method of lighting without causing any light pollution and has been accepted as a method of night lighting the foreground.

The first stop on our photographic exploration is an area called White Pockets, located in the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument where we spent 2 nights camping on location. This extremely remote 280,00 monument has some of the most interesting geology in the desert southwest and contains world renowned locations for photography including Coyote Buttes North and South, The Wave, Paria Canyon, Vermillion Cliffs, Buckskin Wash, views from southern overlooks of the Grand Canyon. White Pockets is a relatively small area about 400 acres in size and contains pastel-colored ridges and gullies of multicolored sandstone that have been warped and petrified over geologic time. The higher elevations of the pocket contain white polygonal rock called brain rock. Although the color of the brain rock is off-white and relatively dull by comparison, it makes great compositional elements in wide angle landscape photography. For the next two nights we camped in the field shooting sunset and the Milky Way which was just a 10-minute walk from our primitive camping area. Since we spent late hours out in the evening and long into the night, we did not do any morning photography. The morning light was boring with no clouds and harsh light, so getting up early or staying up all night to hit sunrise was not an option.

After two 2 1/2 days and nights in White Pockets we returned to Page, Arizona for an overnight to refresh, have an evening meal and prepare for the next adventure. The original itinerary called for camping out at Alstrom Point in the Glenn Canyon Recreation Area but crowds, space permitting and the lack of water below in the reservoir altered our plans. Starting with our first trip we had a medical life flight by helicopter to take a client out of White Pockets. Thankfully the client was released the next day, but his departure required additional doctor visits upon returning home The weather was not our friend with 100-degree temps and sandstorms which made even driving challenging. As many people know from the news this region of the world is in a severe drought with no new spring vegetation, juniper trees dying everywhere and Glenn Canyon dam at 23% of capacity threatening 40 million people on the Colorado River system.  With these factors in mind, the decision was made to camp along the Paria River and make afternoon and evening excursions into the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument for the later part of our tour.

President Bill Clinton set aside the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, the Kaiparowits Plateau and Canyons of the Escalante River system in 1996 due to its geologic wonders and cultural heritage under the Antiquities Act protecting 1.8 million acres of truly wild country. The area is one of the most remote areas of the country and was the last region to be mapped in the lower 48. In 2017 President Trump reduced the size of the monument by 50% for the main purpose of resource extraction and special interest groups. This decision that was not popular with locals and especially Native Americans who had a spiritual relationship with the Plateau. Forward to recent times and President Biden restored the monument to the original size.

For the next couple days, we camped near the Paria River avoiding sandstorms and photographing in sheltered canyons along the Paria and Cottonwood Canyons. In the evening we hiked about a mile into the Grand Staircase and set up for the night on one of my favorite Toadstools in the area. Toadstools or hoodoos as they are called, are large rocks which are balanced on top of highly erosive lower strata leaving a column with a boulder resting on top. Low Level Lighting works well for night photography if the subject is nearby like the Toadstool. In this case we set up our lighting about 50’ away at a right angle to the subject and waited for the Milky Way to cross over the top which was about 12:30-2:00am.  Setting up prior to sunset is prudent in this part of the country because we are not alone anymore in our night photography activities. Arriving early and staying late gave us prime locations and priority when shooting. Otherwise, out of luck for a lot of effort. As the saying goes, the early bird catches the worm! But the hours waiting for the core of the Milky Way to rise were not waisted as there was plenty of stargazing to do for several hours. We watched shooting stars, satellites, constellations, unexplained phenomena and one client had a particular interest in satellites and the solar system, so we were educated on the spot with this up to the minute galactic education.

By the end of each tour, we came away with a broader appreciation and skill set for Milky Way photography. As I shared with both groups it is not about how many images you can take of a particular subject. Quality always beats out quantity and from that philosophy we built on taking some of the best Milky Way and landscape images from these iconic locations. Seeing is believing so look at our slide show to see what you missed and, in the meantime, Happy Star Trails!

Related Tags:  Arizona, landscape, "Milky Way", "night photography", "night sky", "red rocks", stars, Utah, "White Pocket"