Scott Bennet exlores the South West United States of America. In this long but fascinating article, he shows us that there is so much more to the Americas than we think.
Words and Images : Scott Bennett
Without a doubt, the southwestern US is one of my favourite photo destinations on earth. With a trip to Las Vegas for DEMA planned for November, the opportunity for serious landscape photography was too hard to resist. While Sin City may not be everyone’s cup of tea, it is a superb jumping off point to explore the parks of Utah and Arizona. I decided to fly out six days early, but the big question was where to go?
Despite several months of planning time, how does one narrow down the possibilities? I had six days, but six months wouldn’t suffice. Attractions are many but distances are great. Do I re-visit a favourite place or experience something new? Scenic beauty or kitsch? In the end, it was all the above.
While researching online, a company called Action Photo Tours caught my eye. Based in Kanab, Utah they offered day-long photo tours to several locations in Northern Arizona and Southern Utah. One immediately jumped out: White Pocket, located just over the state line in Arizona. Located in the same general area as the famous “Wave” in North Coyote Buttes, it had a major advantage: There was no lottery to obtain a visitor’s permit. I emailed company owner and guide David Swindler and booked a day trip. The rest of my trip was arranged around it.
After-months of planning wait, it was departure day. Arriving in Las Vegas just before 3:00pm, I collected my bag and I caught the shuttle for the rental car depot. Paperwork finalized, I set off for Springdale, Utah, the gateway for Zion National Park. With the one-hour time difference from Vegas, I just made it in time for a late dinner. After checking into the Zion Park Motel, I headed for Wildcat Willie’s, (since renamed Porter’s Smokehouse) right next door. Cuisine was typical western fare in mega-sized American portions. The 14-oz ribeye looked big enough to tip over the Flintstones’ car.
Zion is a true Southwest icon and the very first park I visited in the region over a decade ago. Positioned along the periphery of the Colorado Plateau, Zion is essentially composed of two sections: the canyon and the plateau. Despite being only a few kilometres apart, they are so geologically dissimilar it’s hard to believe they are in the same park! I decided to spend the first day in the canyon and the second on the plateau.
With three visits under my belt, it created something of a conundrum: How to photograph it but not repeat yourself? The answer was to re-visit some favourite locations but shoot them from different vantage points. One of Zion’s most spectacular sites is only a few minutes’ drive from town. Right behind the Zion Museum, the Towers of the Virgin is possibly the most spectacular panorama in the park. Being autumn, sunrise comes a lot later, so there was ample time to grab a coffee en route.
With camera on tripod and coffee in hand, I waited for the magic to appear. Before long, the first sliver of light illuminated the tallest peak before creeping lower to illuminate the entire vista. Turning around, I watched the opposite peaks side lit by the rising sun. A truly sublime start to the day!
At 8:00, I headed back to the Visitor Centre to buy my pass. At a cost of $30.00 it is valid for a week and must be on display if visiting the plateau. To alleviate traffic jams between the spring and autumn months, private vehicles aren’t allowed on the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. Instead, the park operates a fleet of accordion-style shuttle buses. With frequent designated stops, it makes travel through extremely efficient. Once the entry fee has been paid, visitors can hop on and off all day at no extra cost. Travel time from the Visitor Centre to the end at the Temple of Sinawava is about 45 min.
I decided to forgo breakfast in town and park my car at the Centre. Even in November, the lot fills fast. Hopping on the bus, the plan was to gradually work my way to the end with photo stops enroute. At Canyon Junction, the bridge offered unbeatable views of the Virgin River and the Watchmen. Unfortunately, fall colours had already peaked but a wander along riverside trails revealed plenty of photo possibilities. Next stop was the Court of the Patriarchs, a trio of sandstone cliffs named for biblical figures Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Although a short trail led to a higher viewpoint, I headed down to the river, where I managed to photograph the peaks reflected in the still water. Best of all, I had the entire place to myself!
After lunch at the Zion Lodge, I headed for the Temple of Sinawava, the final stop on the scenic road. I especially wanted to photograph the Pulpit, a dramatic rock formation shaded by the canyon walls. There was also a nice waterfall to photograph, the gold leaves on the aspens contrasting with the red rock. I then headed along the Riverside Walk, a fairly level paved trail leading to the Virgin narrows. Mule deer were everywhere along with many wild turkeys. The trail ended where the canyon cliffs plummeted right to the water’s edge and the starting point of the rugged Zion Narrows hike, which entails negotiating the river itself. As I wanted to return by dark (with dry shoes and clothing), I opted to head back after marveling at the scenery. Back on the bus, I made one final stop at Big Bend, with nice views Angel’s Landing and the Great White Throne.
My final day at Zion began with a repeat visit to the Towers of the Virgin viewpoint. After snapping some shots from a different vantage point, I set out for the plateau. I didn’t get far: Just past the Centre, an immense flat-topped peak was gloriously illuminated, prompting a sudden veer off to the shoulder for photos. I’m glad there was no other cars around!
Departing the canyon, the highway ascended sharply via a serpentine series of switchbacks to the mile-long Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel completed in the 1920’s. After negotiating the narrow, dark tunnel (several “windows were cut into the rock face to give light), the Zion Plateau is revealed in all its glory. In sharp contrast to the canyon’s vertiginous ramparts, rounded summits of red, pink and white towered above extraordinary layered sandstone swirled like icing on a titanic cake. Mounds of sandstone perched incongruously atop rippling expenses, as ponderosa pines clung to cracks and ledges on the cliffs above. It’s a place that never ceases to astound.
However, I was on a schedule. My destination was Checkerboard Mesa, near the park’s east entrance. Boasting distinctive cross-hatching on white cone-shaped cliffs, it is one of Zion’s most distinctive landmarks. My guidebook was spot-on; it really does look like a giant baguette fresh from the oven! I spent the next few hours gradually working my way back towards the tunnel. Pull-outs along both sides of the road allowed plenty of opportunities for photo stops. A favourite spot was a sandstone hoodoo ornamented with a little pinion pine like a Japanese bonsai.
Immersed in photography, I really had to motor to make Springdale for my 11:00AM checkout. After lunch, it was back up to the plateau for the rest of the afternoon. From the Park’s east gate, it was just over a half hour to Kanab. I also learned that driving fast at night isn’t a good idea. Just outside of Kanab, a couple of mule deer bolted in front of my car. I was only going 80 km/hr. but just missed them by a metre! After a long day, I checked in at the Kanab Travelodge; not exactly the Burj al Arab, but the walls were thicker and there was a great Mexican restaurant called Escobar’s right across the road.
Finally, the day I was anticipating the most had arrived: My excursion to White Pocket! David arrived at noon and we were off. The trip would take two hours; the first hour on paved Highway 89A. Heading south, we crossed into Arizona, passing from open country to the pine-clad Kaibab Plateau. Just off 89A, the “road” was more of a sandy track. En route, he had many stories of hapless tourists determined to make it in rental cars, only to be mired in the sand. Getting a tow is VERY expensive, so don’t even attempt the trip without a four-wheel drive.
“Here we are” said David as we pulled up to a metal gate barring the road. A sign proclaimed” Enjoy the White Pocket” with a small smiley face underneath. Talk about a low-key entrance! White Pocket is managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and there is currently no entrance fee. We arrived at the parking area, to find 7 cars already there.” Busy today,” remarked David. “It is a Saturday though.” After the non-descript scenery enroute, I wasn’t fully prepared for what lay ahead. Trudging up the sandy path from the parking lot revealed a landscape nothing short of astonishing. Before me was a wonderland of sandstone swirls, twirls, waves and domes like frosted red velvet cupcakes. Although less than a square mile, the number of formations was overwhelming. There were no trails and nothing was marked, let alone named.
Right away, I realized hiring a guide was the best decision possible. The photo opportunities would have been overwhelming on my own, especially without a map or trails to follow. David’s knowledge proved invaluable and promptly took me to all the best sites. First up was the “Dragon’s Tail”, a glorious sweep of sandstone ridges that was leading line heaven.
Although a light cloud cover had crept in, the ensuing 4 hours were amongst the most enjoyable I have ever spent. After capturing the greater landscape, I could then concentrate on vignettes. While the larger formations were undeniably impressive, I found the patterns and textures to be especially captivating. I only shot around 30 separate compositions, but had the highest success rate I’d had on any trip. With only a few other people about, getting unobstructed images was a breeze. Try that at the Grand Canyon!
By late afternoon, the cloud cover dissipated and the landscape was bathed with golden light. “Where would you like to shoot the sunset?” queried David. It was a tossup between a lone pine perched atop a tableau of white-tiled rock or “The Lollipop, a sandstone mound layered with exquisite crossbedding of red, white, orange and gold. Undoubtedly, the Lollipop, but with light waning, we had to hustle.
The setting sun accented ridges of swirling sandstone, while a foreground shrub anchored the composition. For a final shot, David had me run up to a rock slab in front for a photo.
A week earlier, heavy rain had filled the pockets but now, only a few small pools remained. I had just finished shooting one pool in front of a dome of white-tiled rock when the sun burst through the clouds one final time. I just managed to capture its sunlit summit reflected in the shaded pool at its base. Turning around yielded one final surprise. The full moon had risen behind a nearby ridge bathed in magic-hour light. Stunning!
One afternoon here was simply not enough. I lament the day when a paved road is put in, as this delicate environment could not withstand hordes of day trippers. Hopefully, that day remains a long way off.
The next morning necessitated a pre-dawn departure, as the drive to Petrified Forest would take nearly 6 hours. Descending 2,500 feet from the Kaibab Plateau, the road paralleled the Vermilion Cliffs to Marble Canyon. In the early morning light, the colours were glorious. I frequently stopped in the middle of the road to take photos, but fortunately could see miles in either direction. In an hour, I passed only 3 other cars. Re-joining Highway 89, I vowed no more photos until the town of Winslow.
To many Americans, a road trip along the fabled Route 66 is a rite of passage. Connecting Chicago with Los Angeles, America’s “Mother Road” was completed in 1926, becoming synonymous with waves of depression-era migrants heading westward to escape the Dust Bowl. Post World War 11, convertibles replaced jalopies, as newly affluent Americans headed motored to “Get their kicks on Route 66”. With the arrival of the interstates, the small towns suffered and the diners and motor courts virtually went the way of the dodo. Fortunately, traces still remain within Arizona, including Winslow.
I had decided to stop to see the fabled “Corner”, immortalized in the classic Eagles song “Take it Easy”. With the giant 66 painted right on the intersection, it wasn’t hard to find. Standing on the Corner Park features a two-story mural along with life-sized a bronze statue of a man with a guitar and the old flatbed Ford. In September 2016, a statue was unveiled in the likeness of Glenn Frey, the song’s co-writer, who died earlier that year.
Even at 11:00AM on a Sunday, tourists had already assembled to have their pictures taken “Standin’ on the corner in Winslow, Arizona”. I chuckled as an English tourist placed a Shakespeare bobblehead on the intersection to photograph. Apart from shops selling Eagles and Route 66 memorabilia, there was little else in Winslow, the vacant storefronts a testament to better days. The town had hung on by its fingernails, thanks to a cottage industry based on a 40-year old pop song.
Enroute to the Petrified Forest, the town of Holbrook served up a few more slices of vintage American cheese. Part of a Route 66 hotel chain established in the 1930’s, the Wigwam Motel is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Curiously, the rooms were teepees, not wigwams. Parked in front were classic cars in varying degrees of preservation, adding to the vintage Americana feel.
The Rainbow Rock Shop was another obligatory stop. Enclosed by chain-link fences, the assembly of concrete dinosaur sculptures were so deliriously tacky they were magnificent. Signs proclaimed, “Have your picture taken with dinosaur, 75 cents”, while stacks of petrified wood and rocks crowded the main entrance. A caveman family with cutout heads beckoned tourists to pose. Appealing or appalling, depending on one’s point of view. Personally, I’d say both!
Forcing myself away, I set out on the 40-min drive to the park. Nevertheless, tackiness had yet to relinquish its grip. At the park turnoff was the Crystal Forest Museum & Gift Shop, with more dino sculptures and signs proclaiming free petrified wood and cold beer (Because you can’t have one without the other).
The National Park entrance marked a welcome return to normalcy. After paying a modest $10 entry fee, I stopped in at the visitor centre for a map. An impressive display of dinosaur skeletons revealed this to be Triassic rather than Jurassic Park. Just outside was the Rainbow Logs trail, a short loop of 1km. Although the logs were impressive, it was the details that truly dazzled. Scrutiny of the log cross-sections revealed an astounding spectrum of colours.
Moving along, I considered the Long Logs Trail, but opted for the Crystal Forest, another loop trail but in a more rugged setting. The downside was the people walking amongst the logs. By now, I realized the park was bigger than expected and there wouldn’t be enough time to see everything I hoped. I had to pick and choose.
First up was the Jasper Forest. The overlook offered panoramic views of the entire area; a scene of windswept desolation, yet wildly beautiful. Far below, broken chunks of logs lay strewn across the landscape. Cracks and hollows in the logs once contained quartz and amethyst crystals, but have long been plundered by souvenir hunters and gem collectors. Today it is illegal to remove any petrified wood from the park.
I didn’t linger, however, as I needed ample time at the park’s crown jewel: The Blue Mesa. From the parking area, a 1.0-mile paved loop descended steeply into badlands of dome-shaped hills. Composed of a porous clay called bentonite, banding due to manganese and iron oxides signifies different layers that were deposited under water. And yes, they really were tinted blue!
With the clock ticking, I couldn’t do the entire loop, so had to settle for going halfway. Nevertheless, the deepening colours proved exquisite, while side lighting by the setting sun accentuated the incredible textures. Throw some petrified logs into the mix and you have a nature photographer’s dream.
Reluctantly, I had to make my way to the exit, as insistent park rangers with megaphones blared constant reminders of the sunset closing time. I had just enough time to stop at one of the Painted Desert overlooks. Setting up my tripod, I just managed to capture the super moon cresting a distant line of hills. Elated from the day’s photography, I then faced a nearly 3-hour trip to Sedona. By the time I arrived, it was the most driving I’d ever done in a single day in my entire life. And it was worth every kilometre!
Sitting at an elevation of nearly 1400m, Sedona is one of my favourite places in Arizona. This is red rock country; a geological wonderland of towering spires, buttes and mesas. Stirring something deep within, it’s a place that inspires and energizes, enticing me back time after time. It’s also one of the few places to eat healthy cuisine, a welcome respite from the mega-portions common in the US.
Once the shooting location for countless westerns, the once sleepy hamlet has blossomed into a major tourist destination. The town itself is divided into three sections: Sedona, West Sedona and the Village of Oak Creek and is a lot more spread out than it appears on the map. This trip, I opted to stay in the Village of Oak Creek, the southernmost portion of town. The Bell Rock Inn proved to be pretty posh; just the place to end my trip in style.
In addition to the sublime scenery, Sedona is sacred to Native Americans and renowned as a place of healing and spiritual regeneration. Whatever one’s spiritual leanings, the town has an undeniable allure. With only two days to spare, I decided to concentrate on only a few locations. Fortunately, one of the most famous was on my hotel doorstep. Renowned as one of Sedona’s energy vortexes, Bell Rock couldn’t be better named. Composed of horizontally bedded sedimentary rock, it is technically a butte but really does resemble a giant bell.
Leaving before 7:30, the sun had yet to crest the hills to the east due to the high elevation. When it did, the grassy fields glowed golden, a nice foreground element for adjacent Courthouse Butte. I then headed for the downtown, stopping frequently for photographs. Especially captivating was The Chapel of the Holy Cross, a Roman Catholic chapel constructed right into the rock itself. From the church, vantage points offered great views, from Bell Rock and Courthouse Butte to Airport Mesa.
However, Sedona isn’t just about the scenery and to quote Monty Python, “and now for something completely different”. I stopped by the Center for the New Age and signed up for a UFO-spotting tour with Melinda Leslie. I had seen it advertised online and it was just off the wall enough I had to do it.
Arriving at the centre at 5:30, I was feeling equal doses of apprehension and enthusiasm. What would I see? Would my perception of reality go out the window? If a close encounter was imminent, I sincerely hoped probes would not be involved.
Waiting outside were the other participants, two couples from Texas. One brandished a handlebar mustache and a cowboy hat; not exactly the type I expected on a UFO tour. Melinda arrived minutes later, having just gotten back from a UFO conference in Nevada.
We then headed 20 min out of town to a hilltop near Airport Mesa. En route, Melinda told us a bit about herself, including the startling revelation she was an alien abductee. Having seen UFO conspiracy types on YouTube, the majority looked nuttier than a Christmas’ fruitcake. Melinda looked, well, normal. A cheerful, unassuming woman in her fifties, she talked so matter of fact about it all like she was discussing laundry.
After setting up some lawn chairs, Melinda briefed us on using the infrared military goggles, which absorb up to 20,000 times more light than the naked eye. “Please don’t look at the super moon”, she implored. “I don’t want to spend $2000.00 to get them fixed.” She meant the goggles, not our eyes, although I suspected the damage would be equally expensive for both.
Putting on the goggles revealed another world; the number of stars was staggering! Cathedral Rock, one of Sedona’s most distinguishable landmarks, had been a silhouette but now I could discern every detail.
Melinda then gave us a rundown of what we would see and how would we differentiate the earthbound from the extraterrestrial. She explained planes were identifiable by flashing navigation lights, two for commercial aircraft and three for military. “Shooting stars have tails, and satellites fly very slowly towards the horizon,” she said. “When these things have been ruled out, we’re left with the unknowns.”
As it turned out, there were unknowns aplenty and they started appearing within minutes. We did see planes, satellites and shooting stars, but the other objects didn’t fit those criteria. There were lights that wobbled, pulsed, zigzagged and changed speed. One abrupted changed direction, something no aircraft can do. Just what was going on up there??
Melinda explained this phenomenon is nothing new and native people have been seeing things here for a very long time. “If all this is going on, how come we aren’t hearing about it on the news”, I asked, playing the devil’s advocate. “Well, that depends on what news you are listening to”, she responded cheerily. She then described her abduction experiences, different alien species and government cover-ups. “So, based on what you are saying, the X-Files is more or less accurate?” I queried. “Pretty much”, she responded. I didn’t even know how to respond….
By 8:00, the sightings decreased and the air chilled. Melinda called it a wrap and we then started to pack up. Tour over, I pondered what I had seen. Were they alien spacecraft, light anomalies or God knows what? The inescapable fact was I had seen them. Many of them. (And this apparently was a slow night due to the super moon). They were flying and unidentified; that made them UFO’s in my book. My sense of reality had indeed been shaken. Would I do it again? In a heartbeat!
Leaving Sedona, I had one more stop before Las Vegas. At the turn of the 20th century, the town of Seligman was still the Wild West. Populated by cowboys, shootouts ensued on the streets while saloons and brothels outnumbered churches three to one. Life eventually settled down and the arrival of Route 66 bolstered the local economy, catering to the influx of travelers along the new highway.
Alas, the glory days were brief, as the arrival of the interstate in the late 1970’s dealt the town a serious blow. Fortunately, enthusiastic residents embraced its Route 66 origins, making it a mecca for in-your-face, retro Americana. With everything from classic cars with cartoony eyes immortalized by Pixar’s movie “Cars” to vintage signs, gas pumps, space aliens and a plane protruding from a wall, it’s the place to “Get your kitsch on Route 66”. Souvenir shop the Rusty Bolt was outlandish even by Seligman standards, featuring 20 dummies standing along the sidewalk and porch with a 1959 Edsel parked out front. The memorabilia was staggering, with the interior as eccentric as the exterior. I couldn’t help myself and bought a coffee mug.
Restaurant fare proved equally off-the-wall. At the Roadkill Café, the story goes that until the mid ’80s, you could bring your own meat and they would cook it for you. Delgadillo’s Snow Cap Drive-in is another legend, boasting such favourites as “cheeseburgers with cheese” and “dead chicken”. Health food aficionados beware; this is the realm of meat, the milkshake and the deep fat fryer. If it’s healthy fare you want, Sedona was the last stop. Here, cholesterol is king! Wanting to see retirement age, I decided to pass.
While photographing, I noticed a grizzled cowboy, complete with boots and hat, sweeping up horse droppings. I’d seen him earlier, but was too self-conscious to approach him for a photo. Now he was back, and I didn’t want to blow it a second time. At first, I thought he was dressed for the tourists, but soon realized he was the real deal. “May I take your picture?” I asked nervously. “Sure thing, “he replied with a grin. “Would you like me to get my horse?” Before I could answer, he went for his horse in a nearby trailer. Mounting his steed, he posed, holding a shotgun aloft for maximum effect. How cool was that? I learned my lesson; it always pays to ask!
After another half hour of photography, it was finally time to head back to Vegas. Although my trip was a bit of a whirlwind, it was truly spectacular. After all, where else can one see canyons, cowboys and UFO’s in a mere 6 days?? One could spend a lifetime photographing the American West and just scratch the surface. However, in a week, I managed some serious scratching and can’t wait to return for more.