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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

A Photo Highway


Route 89 carves its way through some of the most spectacular scenery in the Western U.S. It’s a landscape photographer’s dream road trip.

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The trek along Route 89 takes in some of the most spectacular scenery in North America. Photographer James Cowlin’s Honda Element and teardrop trailer rig make an ideal setup for adventures along the open road.

Ten years ago, I found myself staring at a map of the western United States looking for my next photographic project. What caught my eye was a string of national parks in a nearly straight line between the Canadian and Mexican borders. When I plotted a road trip to visit those seven parks, I discovered they’re all on or near one federal highway: U.S. Route 89.

Since that discovery, I’ve logged over 20,000 miles along what I consider to be the most scenic highway in America. Highway 89 traverses all of the geographic provinces of the interior West, from the desert mountains and valleys of southern Arizona, across the Colorado Plateau of northern Arizona and southern Utah, through the Rocky Mountains in northern Utah, Wyoming and Montana and into the Great Plains. The diversity of landscapes is a dream come true for the landscape photographer who can make the border-to-border drive.

Left to right: Ocotillo and saguaro cacti along Valley Overlook Trail, Tucson Mountain District, Saguaro National Park, Arizona; The sanctuary in the Spanish mission, Tumacácori National Historical Park, Arizona; North Geyser Basin, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

Beginning with our first national park, Yellowstone, federal, state and local governments have had the foresight to protect the most beautiful areas along Route 89. In addition to the seven national parks—Saguaro, Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Grand Teton, Yellowstone and Glacier—there are 13 national monuments, a national recreation area, 14 national forests, 22 wilderness areas and numerous state parks and historic sites to explore. For those interested in learning about the history and culture of the West, there are three major cities and 150 small cities and towns to visit. By spending time in local history museums and art centers, the traveler on Route 89 can gain a deeper understanding of the diversity of cultures that make the American West an endlessly fascinating place to visit.

A Route 89 trip could be along one section of the road or you could do the whole thing at once. Covering the 2,000 one-way miles between Canada and Mexico can be done in two weeks, but another week or two allows for extended exploration and more photographic possibilities. Since the parks in Wyoming and Montana don’t completely open until the middle of June, summer to early fall is the best time to see it all. If you’re primarily interested in the Arizona and southern Utah parks and monuments, April to mid-June is best before the weather gets too hot.

As a landscape photographer, I tend to think in terms of geographic areas rather than political boundaries, so I’ll detail a road trip on Route 89 in three sections: Basin and Range, the Colorado Plateau and the Rocky Mountains. Each geographic province has unique characteristics and challenges, and each could be a separate trip. I’ll start in the mountains and valleys of southern Arizona.

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