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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Grand Canyon From Within

Be adventurous and get away from the hordes of tourists who crowd the plateau to see this natural wonder from a completely different perspective

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Elves Chasm, Grand Canyon National Park, AZ

Deer Creek Falls, Grand Canyon National Park, AZ
How many of us first approached the Grand Canyon from rim level, took a long sweeping look and then despaired over how to depict the beauty, spirit and scale of this geologic wonder in a photograph from that spot? The obvious solution, of course, is to strap on the boots and head down the trails, of which there are many that lead to superb photo sites. But Newton’s law of gravitation applies with a harsh twist in the Grand Canyon: What goes down must go back up! And, more importantly, there are so many magical inner canyons and waterfalls, beaches and rapids, ruins and reflections that only can be accessed from the river itself. To see them, you simply have to get wet.

For many years now, I’ve believed that the very best way to create stronger photographs of the Grand Canyon is to take a river trip down the Colorado, from Lee Ferry to either Whitmore Canyon or all the way to Lake Mead. And I’ve been privileged to do it nine times, in both motorized and paddled rafts, and in a dory, which is the sweetest ride on the river. To have enough time to enjoy side hikes and explore the variety of hidden wonders a vertical mile deep in the crust of the Southwest, you want to join a trip of at least seven days, and more time is always better.

Havasu Creek, Havasupai Reservation, Grand Canyon National Park, AZ
My favorite Anasazi site in the Southwest are the granaries of Nankoweap. Inset in a massive limestone wall and overlooking a singular view downstream of the Colorado River, these tiny windowed rooms preserved hard-won food for peoples who made this their home a millennium ago. The rocky switchbacks climb steeply perhaps 400 feet to the granaries, but don’t pass up this hike! The sun line illuminates the windows by midmorning, but dawn’s rich colors are long gone, so my suggestion is to make the hike in late afternoon. Then the granaries are in open, soft shade, the river is reflecting the cool blue sky overhead, and the cliff facing due west acts as a giant warm reflector, spilling light onto the trail and small windows. Turning a two-stop neutral grad filter holds the sunlit cliff in range and balances the overall scene, or consider this an opportunity to hone your HDR skills. Either way, this is a place you’ll long remember.

I was able to stay at the granaries into twilight and light the windows with tea candles set just inside the openings. An exposure of 20 seconds with my Pentax 12-24mm lens, set at 12mm, recorded both Jupiter and the lights of a river runner’s camp far below. (Note that the candles were enclosed and no wax was spilled. Always leave a location unspoiled, as you would hope to find it.) Don’t forget your headlamp to safely descend this ankle-breaker of a trail!


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