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Southwest Road Trip

A pro’s guide to the lesser-known vantage points in the dramatic landscapes of Arizona, Nevada and Utah

Panorama red rock formations, Kodachrome Basin State Park, Utah
Nikon D3X, AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm ƒ/2.8G ED, Gitzo tripod, Arca-Swiss ballhead, stitched panorama using three images and Adobe Photoshop CS4


Click for panorama view.

Watching a spectacular Bryce lightning storm through my camera viewfinder, I looked around to check the light behind me and found I was sharing the viewpoint with 65 of my “closest friends.” That’s when I knew I needed to find other, lesser-known locations for my Southwestern landscape photography. You can create amazing images in our national parks, but I find it more productive off the beaten track where my images reflect different perspectives from better-known locations and fresh subjects from lesser-known areas. Here’s my preferred route, starting out from Las Vegas through magnificent southern Utah, northern Arizona and southern Nevada hoodoo and red rock locations.

Panaca formations, Cathedral Gorge State Park, Nevada
Nikon F5, AF-S Zoom-NIKKOR 17-35mm ƒ/2.8D IF-ED, Fujichrome Velvia 50, Gitzo tripod, Arca-Swiss ballhead

Las Vegas To Zion
From Las Vegas, head north on Interstate 15 toward Zion National Park in Utah, but avoid the auto restrictions and crowds in Zion. Instead, take Highway 59 east from Hurricane 11 miles to Smithsonian Butte Road to photograph Zion’s Temple formations from a different perspective with no one around. In two days, I saw five cars and no hikers along the BLM improved road. It’s an excellent graded dirt road drivable in any weather except severe summer thunderstorms or heavy winter snow. The road takes you through high desert from a point east of Hurricane to the main access road through Springdale and Zion National Park. Stay in Hurricane and watch for clearing thunderstorm activity in summer to get spectacular light and the possibility of rainbows and lightning. You can find great compositions along this backcountry road.

The Zion formations are some distance away so opt for medium telephotos, although if you find a great foreground element like a juniper tree, a wide-angle lens lets you capture the complete scene with enough depth of field to keep foreground and distant formations in sharp focus.

The North Rim, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Nikon D3X, AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm ƒ/2.8G ED, Gitzo tripod, Arca-Swiss ballhead

Hurricane To The North Rim Of The Grand Canyon
From Hurricane travel east on Utah Highway 59/389 to Fredonia, Arizona. In Fredonia, take Highway 89 south to Highway 67 south to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. It’s not a “lesser-known area,” but the North Rim has one hotel and campsite area, can’t support large crowds and seldom gets daytrippers. Stay a night or two during the summer and head for Point Imperial or Cape Royal for sunrise and sunset, especially if summer lightning storms are present.

Medium telephoto lenses work well in both locations to isolate formations and sections of the canyon, but take a wide-angle lens, too. Foreground elements in both locations provide different perspectives. You won’t have the solitude of Smithsonian Butte Road, but you won’t have the crowds and auto restrictions of the South Rim of the Grand Canyon either. The road to Cape Royal has numerous pullouts where you can capture fresh images of this wonder of nature.

The North Rim Of The Grand Canyon To Devil’s Garden
Leaving the North Rim, head north on Highway 89 to Highway 12 in Utah. Go east on 12 past Bryce Canyon through Tropic to Escalante, the gateway to Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Devil’s Garden. There are motels, restaurants and a major national park office in Escalante that can provide directions and road conditions for Devil’s Garden.

Zion National Park from Hurricane, Utah
Nikon D3X, AF-S DX Zoom-NIKKOR 12-24mm ƒ/4G IF-ED, Gitzo tripod, Arca-Swiss ballhead, stitched panorama using three images and Adobe Photoshop CS4

You can drive the 15-mile, graded dirt road in a passenger car except during major rainstorms when the road turns to slick clay. The main area of sandstone formations, including Metate Arch and the Trolls, is a few hundred feet from the parking area. You easily can explore Devil’s Garden in a day, but take your time.

You can use every lens in your arsenal since it’s easy to hike around and carry your gear with you, especially your tripod. For the best, sharpest images, use a tripod, mirror lockup and a cable release to stabilize your camera and eliminate mirror slap. The road to Devil’s Garden follows the Straight Cliffs to the west, and if the summer has been wet, you may have spectacular landscapes of wildflower displays with the mountains in the background.

From Escalante, travel north on Highway 12 to Torrey and Highway 24. Highway 12 has spectacular vistas, high-altitude aspen forests and side roads to mountain lakes and streams. At Torrey, turn east through Capitol Reef National Park where you can photograph great vistas from pullouts along the road. Continue on to Hanksville, Utah, your stopover for your visit to Goblin Valley State Park, an easy-to-reach pocket of spectacular mushroom-shaped hoodoos. It’s about 35 miles on a paved road to the visitor’s center. The road into the visitor’s center is framed to the west by Wild Horse Butte, a magnificent eroded sandstone formation that turns red and gold in the morning. Summer sunrise storm clouds really set off this butte. Stop along the road and use a medium telephoto lens to isolate the butte.

Capitol Reef National Park, Utah
Nikon D3X, AF-S DX Zoom-NIKKOR 12-24mm ƒ/4G IF-ED, Gitzo tripod, Arca-Swiss ballhead

From the parking lot, look northeast for a solitary red sandstone formation with three hoodoos. Try photographing this subject at dusk in the low-angled reddish light. Desert pronghorn often graze near the formation, adding an interesting element. Landscape vistas and intimate scenic opportunities abound here even though it’s only a few acres in size. You can photograph the main hoodoo section from the parking lot overlooks or hike into the valley with wide-angle lenses for vistas and medium telephotos to isolate formations for more intimate perspectives to bring your viewer into the scene. You’ll pass side roads to Temple Mountain and the San Rafael Swell on your way into Goblin Valley.

Devil’s Garden To Fantasy Canyon
The next leg of your trip is long, but worth it. Head north on Highway 24 45 miles to Interstate 70, then east on 70 to Highway 6/191. Turn north through Price and Helper. North of Helper, bear northeast on 191 about 45 miles to Duchesne, then east on 191/40 to the town of Vernal, your base for Fantasy Canyon. There are motels, campgrounds, restaurants and a major BLM office in Vernal. Fantasy Canyon is located on BLM lands about 40 miles from Vernal, and BLM personnel can provide a map and tell you about road conditions.

Dave Welling’s Southwest Driving Route

Fantasy Canyon is a few acres of unique sandstone formations located in the middle of a major working oil field. You’ll probably have the place to yourself. The sandstone here is off-white in color. Watch your exposures during any midday shooting when the contrast range is extreme. Early morning and late afternoon to sunset when low-angled light turns the formations bronze and reddish brown are better for photography.

You’re never far from your vehicle so take all your lenses; you’ll have an opportunity to use every one. There are vistas, medium-range scenics, intimate views of the formations and every other possibility you can think of. Look for opportunities to frame one formation with other formations. This brings an interesting vision to your images. If you try this, watch your depth of field and keep your important elements sharply focused and complementary to each other. Summers in this part of Utah can bring monsoon rain, lightning, spectacular clouds, rainbows and dramatic light along storm edges. The oilfield road is hazardous when wet, so temper your desire to photograph summer storms with caution.

Devil’s Garden, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
Nikon D3X, AF-S DX Zoom-NIKKOR 12-24mm ƒ/4G IF-ED, Gitzo tripod, Arca-Swiss ballhead

Fantasy Canyon To Cathedral Gorge
Vernal is the eastern terminus of your trip. Return via Highway 191/40/6 to Interstate 70, head west to Interstate 15 and south to Cedar City. From Cedar City, take Highway 56/319 west to Panaca, Nevada. At Panaca, you can head north a few miles on Highway 93 to the marked turnoff for the overlook for Cathedral Gorge State Park. Or, head south a few miles to the main entrance/visitor’s center for the park. The sandstone formations here are similar in color to Fantasy Canyon, but shaped like Bryce hoodoos. Photograph from the overlook, hike down into the canyon or hike the main trail from the parking lot near the visitor’s center. Again, you’ll probably have the area mostly to yourself.

The northern section of Cathedral Gorge is in a narrow canyon and light doesn’t strike the lower areas until mid-morning, creating harsh contrast. Take multiple images of the same scene using different exposure settings and combine them using HDR from your image-processing software. Consider it a challenge and see what you can create.

Head south on Highway 93 to Interstate 15, then southwest to Las Vegas, the end of your journey.

To see more of Dave Welling’s photography, go to

Road Trip Necessities
Getting to an unseen, unspoiled vista is the ultimate goal for many of us. Where the paved road ends is where the adventure begins, but for safety’s sake you need to have some gear with you. There’s no substitute for a good GPS. It’s much more reliable than a cell phone for navigation when you get into areas where cell coverage is spotty at best. We like the DeLorme Earthmate GPS PN-60 with Topo North America 9.0 because it has a bright screen, it’s intuitive with an icon-based interface, and it has Topo 9.0 included, which lets you preplan routes with detailed topographic maps ($399 estimated street price, The Magellan eXplorist 610 United States also gives you topographic mapping capability, with 1:24,000 Summit Series USA maps ($449 estimated street price, If you’re a regular OP reader, you know that we’re big believers in the SPOT products. The SPOT Connect pairs to your cell phone to let you use the phone as a satellite communicator. You can send short emails, text messages and updates to Facebook and Twitter, or send an SOS message with your coordinates, but no voice communication or phone calls ($169 estimated street price, In the fading light, after you’ve photographed the perfect sunset, a headlamp is indispensable for packing up your gear and safely walking back to your car. Petzl makes a variety of compact, bright models that weigh next to nothing and are easily kept ready in your camera bag (