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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 Colorado Plateau
Topographically, the Colorado Plateau is a series of horizontal rock strata marked by cliff faces that the traveler ascends like a staircase. The rocks are carved by wind and water into fantastical forms and enormous canyons. Here and there, the surface is punctuated by volcanic mountains. Much of the plateau is between 5,000 and 6,000 feet in elevation so the light tends to be clear and bright. This light makes for highly saturated colors in the many exposed rock layers.

There are many spectacular scenes to photograph along the 500 miles of Route 89 on the Colorado Plateau and everyone who shoots here soon finds his or her own favorites. It’s as though certain places touch one’s spirit and pull one back again and again. For me, it was the Grand Canyon. Before starting the Route 89 project, I spent as much time as I could at the canyon for 12 years. Here’s a short list of my picks for the best places to photograph on the South Rim: Hopi Point at sunset, Moran Point at sunrise and a day hike down the Grandview trail to Horseshoe Mesa. On the North Rim, go to Cape Royal for sunrise and Point Sublime for sunset. See those five places, and you’ll be hooked on the Grand Canyon, and you’re guaranteed to make some great pictures.

Between Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon, drive the loop road that goes through the Sunset Crater Volcano and the Wupatki National Monuments. Sunset Crater is the youngest volcano on the plateau, having erupted between 950 and 750 years ago. The cinder-covered slopes interlaced with basaltic lava flows have a fiery glow early or late in the day. Wupatki is one of many opportunities to photograph the remains of long-abandoned Indian dwellings.

Route 89 follows a series of river valleys north of Kanab. The high white walls of Zion Canyon await your camera to the west and the red hoodoos of Bryce Canyon are on the east. Zion now uses a shuttle bus system from April 1 to October 30. The advantage is that you no longer have to fight for a parking space along the park’s scenic drive. However, there are a few spots with pullouts where I’ve stopped my car to photograph in the past that are no longer easily accessible. Your ability to react to changing light and weather conditions is somewhat constrained. The beauty of Zion Canyon is well worth the limitations, especially when you hike along the well-maintained scenic trails.

One of my favorite parts of the drive over the Colorado Plateau is the Sanpete Valley between Gunnison and Fairview, which is part of the Mormon Pioneer National Heritage Area. This was one of the first areas settled by the Mormons after their arrival in Utah. Route 89 is the main street of each of the seven towns that are laid out according to Brigham Young’s plan. Many of the buildings are constructed from pale yellow sandstone quarried nearby. Here are a few highlights: the Mormon Temple at Manti, the Central Utah Art Center and Snow College in Ephraim, the historic town of Spring City, now an artist’s community, and the Fairview Museum of History and Art.

A Note On Historic U.S. Route 89

If you’re looking for U.S. Route 89 on a map, you’ll see that it starts in Flagstaff, Ariz. The original route between Nogales and Flagstaff was decommissioned in 1992 after interstates that cover the distance were built. To follow Route 89’s historic path from Nogales, take I-19 north to Tucson, State Route 77 to Oracle Junction, State Route 79 to Florence Junction, U.S. 60 to Wickenburg, State Route 89 to Ash Fork and I-40 to Flagstaff. State Route 89A branches off just north of Prescott and rejoins 89 in Flagstaff.


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