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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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Panorama from Point Sublime, North Rim of the Grand Canyon, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona.
Basin And Range
The topography of southern Arizona is composed of jagged mountains, some as high as 10,000 feet, widely separated by level valleys. The vegetation in the Sonoran Desert is characterized by the giant saguaro cactus. The best place to photograph this landscape is Saguaro National Park. The image that comes to mind with the word “desert” is of a desolate, dry place of sand dunes and little else. When you visit Saguaro, however, you enter a lush world filled with plants and animals that have evolved to live in a dry, hot climate.

The park is divided into two districts 30 miles apart on the east and west sides of Tucson. If your time is limited, concentrate on one district. They both offer ample opportunities to explore. And there’s much to see—58 kinds of reptiles and amphibians, 74 different mammals and 187 types of birds living among 600-plus species of plants.

Route 89 stretches from the U.S.-Canada border to the U.S.-Mexico border. The major national parks that 89 passes are Glacier, Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Bryce, Zion, Grand Canyon and Saguaro. Viewing this map can’t help but inspire any nature photographer to ponder the possibilities of a road trip.
My favorite spot for sunset is the Signal Hill picnic area in the westside Tucson Mountain District. From the picnic area, a quarter-mile trail will take you to a rocky hilltop where you’ll find dozens of ancient petroglyphs. These markings on the rocks were created over 800 years ago by ancestors of the Tohono O’odham people who still live in this area. The true meaning of the petroglyphs has been lost to antiquity, but it’s fun to speculate on what was in the minds of their creators. Of particular note is the large spiral that may be an astronomical symbol to mark the passing of the seasons.

South of Tucson there are several opportunities to explore America’s Spanish heritage. Tumacácori National Historical Park preserves the ruins of a mission church established in 1691. Nearby is the Tubac Presidio State Historic Park, a military fort built to protect the missionaries. Most beautiful of all is San Xavier del Bac, a still-active mission church that has undergone extensive restoration recently.

The northern edge of the Basin and Range shades into the Colorado Plateau through a mountainous transition zone. This is particularly evident on State Route 89A between Prescott and Sedona, one of the most scenic parts of the entire highway. Going north, you climb to the summit of Mingus Mountain and then plunge down into the Verde Valley through the historic towns of Jerome, Clarkdale and Cottonwood. As you cross the Verde River, the red rocks that mark the edge of the Colorado Plateau come into view.

There are numerous roads and trails that penetrate the wilderness around Sedona. One of the most photographed scenes is the view of Cathedral Rock from Red Rock State Park. If you want to get into the backcountry without too much effort, I recommend a visit to two prehistoric Indian ruins, Palatki and Honanki. Turn west on Red Canyon Road (FR 525) a half mile north of mile marker 364. Drive seven miles to Palatki and then another four and a half miles to Honanki. The cliff dwellings and rock art are special places to photograph, but you may find yourself stopping often along the road to shoot the colorful red rock formations.


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