October means it’s time for another one of my notorious planned impromptu road trips. “Planned impromptu? Huh?!?”
I planned on taking last week off quite some time ago, so I’ve had that on my schedule for a while. The impromptu part comes in when I didn’t make my first hotel reservation until 11:00 p.m. Saturday night for a Sunday morning departure.
The options under consideration for this trip were: 1. A run up north to the coastal redwoods again; 2. A return visit to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks; or 3. A run to Sedona, Arizona, a place I’ve never been to before. Option 3 won out. I wanted to see something new.
Keep in mind, when I take a road trip like this, the primary purpose is almost always landscape photography, so I’m a little biased away from doing in-town kind of things.
The high Santa Ana winds that were setting California ablaze impacted the drive from San Diego to Sedona a bit. It was very windy most of the trip and I even had to swerve around a few tumbling tumbleweeds making their way across the Interstate highway.
My hotel was actually in Oak Creek, about six miles to the south of central Sedona, but I had an “Oh, wow!” moment as I drove in from the south. I arrived around 5:00 p.m., and the late afternoon sun was painting the red rock formations in a nice orange glow. The photographer in me became excited at the possibilities.
I also knew going into this trip that this was a reconnaissance trip, trying to figure out the best locations over the next two or so days (I made reservations for three nights at the hotel). I was okay if I didn’t come away with a ton of images this time around. You have to figure out where and when to take them, first.
As soon as I checked into the hotel, I turned right around to take advantage of the remaining daylight and explore the area around my hotel. I located some of the places that I thought would make good sunrise locations, and I also headed out to one of the access points to get the famed Oak Creek and Cathedral Rock photo that the Sedona area is known for.
The next morning, I was out at sunrise taking photos and continuing my recon of the area through the day. The more I explored, the less enthused I became about the Sedona/Oak Creek area when it came to landscape photography. (Blasphemy, I know.)
I was beginning to feel like I was at Cars Land at Disneyland—a very nice but contrived theme park. In many areas, Oak Creek, Sedona, and West Sedona all butt right against some of these amazing red rock buttes and mesas. City and nature colliding. I stopped at one scenic overlook to take a photo and when I climbed to the top of a small ridge, there were half a dozen houses on the other side that would have been in he shot.
To the area’s credit, there are dozens of hiking trails that, had I taken the time to explore them, I might have come away a bit more satisfied. But the best way for me to get a feel for the whole area was to drive from one potential location to another to scout it out for the potential for an award-winning image. (Or at least a “keeper.”)
Oak Creek Canyon, where Slide Rock State Park is located, was far more interesting to me. Fortunately, I was there early enough where I could photograph without people wandering into my image. I didn’t make it to the West Fork of Oak Creek, but I’ve heard that’s pretty amazing, too. Next time.
Doing all of this scouting wasn’t inexpensive, either. There was a $15 fee for a Red Rocks week-long pass* that allowed you to park at any of the trail heads or scenic overlook areas. Slide Rock State Park cost another $10 to enter. The parking lot at the airport overlook cost $3, and the entrance fee to the Crescent Moon Day Use site was another $11. In other words, you have to pay to get access to some of the better views in the area.
* – I later learned that my annual National Park Pass would have worked to cover the Red Rocks parking costs.
I really didn’t spend much time in Sedona’s town center itself, aside from one area called the Tlaquepaque Arts & Shopping Village. It was a nice little area with a lot of art galleries, shops selling Native American items, and a few restaurants.
I had dinner at the Oak Creek Brewery and Grill on my first night there (thanks to a recommendation from the hotel staff), and I liked it so much, I went back the second night. On the second night, the server came up to me, “Hi. I’m Emily and I’ll be taking care of you tonight.” I had to reply, “Hi. I’m Dan, and I’ll be taken care of tonight.” As soon as I did, my server from the previous night came up and said, “Watch out for this one. He’s nothing but trouble.” She had me nailed.
I did stop at Garland’s Navajo Rugs just to see some of what was available. Some of the intricate weaving that was done to create the rugs was mind-blowing. One of the rugs that caught my eye had a price tag of $12,500—it was an amazing work of art.
Jerome & Cottonwood
After getting some early morning photos on Tuesday, I drove over to explore the copper mining town of Jerome and nearby Cottonwood.
Jerome was founded in 1876 and was designated a National Historic District in 1967. Today, tourists visiting the galleries, restaurants, and shops—instead of copper—are the life blood of the town.
I was chatting with one shopkeeper and we learned that we grew up only a few miles apart from each other in the Chicago area.
There are about four or five blocks to explore, and that’s about it. Of course, there’s this state historical park on the old mine site, too. I’m glad that I went as a quick little day trip out of Sedona, but I wouldn’t plan it to be a specific vacation destination.
On the way back to Sedona, I stopped in Cottonwood. For some reason, I thought that there would be more to the historic district, but there really wasn’t. It’s much like Jerome—only 4-5 blocks long—filled with galleries, kitsch shops, and a few restaurants. I had a nice lunch at the Tavern Grille.
Grand Canyon National Park
The last time I was at the Grand Canyon was in November 1981 as I was driving my car from Newport, Rhode Island to Oakland, California for it to be shipped to Honolulu, Hawaii. It really was nothing more than a quick drive-by, and there was a dusting of snow on the ground here and there. This visit, I spent the entire day there.
The weather on Wednesday, however, made for a very interesting day. When I arrived in the morning, my car’s outside temperature indicator displayed that it was a brisk 21° F / -6° C, and it never got higher than 28° F / -2° C during the afternoon. (The south rim of the Grand Canyon is about 7,000 feet / 2,133 meters in elevation, and that contributes to the cold weather, too.) In the morning, there was a constant stiff wind of at least 20 mph / 32 km/h blowing, with stronger gusts right at the canyon’s edge. Thank goodness I packed my winter coat and gloves.
As you can see from the photos, the wind actually worked to our advantage, blowing any dust or haze out of the canyon, giving us extraordinarily clear views. Look closely in a few of the photos and you’ll see the Colorado River carving its way through the canyon.
One thing that I found interesting at the park were all the languages being spoken. International tourism in the United States is still thriving. I had a pleasant chat with a young gentleman from Graz, Austria and I got to practice mangling German once again.
Page, Arizona & Horseshoe Bend
Just outside of Page, Arizona, the Colorado River flowing south to the Grand Canyon has formed Horseshoe Bend. It’s an iconic photo location that’s probably on many landscape photographers’ bucket lists. The night before leaving Sedona, I hopped on my International Hotels Group app on my tablet and booked a room in Page for the next night.
This location was new to me as well and, even though I had done some reading about photographing here, I really wasn’t sure what to expect. Unfortunately, some of my research was a bit misleading.
The City of Page recently implemented a $10 parking fee at its new, expanded parking lot which was news to me. I also wasn’t expecting a 0.75 mile / 1.3 km (one-way) walk from the parking lot to the vantage point; what I had read indicated it was shorter. Not a big deal other than it consumed more time than I planned for.
I was actually hoping to get there before the sun rose so that I wouldn’t have to deal with the harsh contrast between light and shadow. Next time, I’ll set my alarm earlier.
While I was standing there, a gentleman in a red coat came up with his camera and tripod, and he looked a little familiar to me. We started comparing notes on where we had been photographing. It turns out that he stayed in the same hotel in Sedona as I did and, when I was taking the photo of Oak Creek and Cathedral Rock, we ran into each other there, too. Even more eerie, he stayed in the same hotel that I did in Page, too.
The wide angle lens used to take this photo gives a weird perspective. I had to lean my tripod up against the guard railing and, once you go over the rocks at the bottom of the frame, it’s pretty much straight down 1,000 feet / 300 meters to the river from there.
Glen Canyon Dam & Lake Powell
After finishing at Horseshoe Bend, I started my drive to Zion National Park. I made a brief visit to the visitor center at Glen Canyon Dam. Glen Canyon Dam holds back the Colorado River to form Lake Powell.
Zion National Park
My one and only other trip to Zion National Park was in the mid-1980s on another one of my cross-country trips for the U.S. Navy. Like the visit to the Grand Canyon, it was more a drive-through than a proper visit. (And that was back when you could drive your car all the way into the park; now you have to take a mandatory shuttle bus.)
This visit wasn’t much better in terms of length of time spent there, but I used it as a refresher and a scouting trip to return someday.
When I visited in the 1980s, I never made it to the eastern side of the park; this time, I arrived through the east entrance and was amazed. To me, that side of the park is much more interesting than the main valley itself. (Don’t get me wrong. The main valley is pretty special, too.) While Sedona and Oak Creek were nice, this is really the type of environment that I like to photograph in.
While I was at one of the scenic overlooks just inside the eastern boundary of the park, I started a conversation with a young man who was riding his bike fully loaded down. “You’re ambitious,” I said. I didn’t expect his reply to be an indicator of just how ambitious he really is.
He’s a volunteer firefighter in Munich, Germany who had been riding his bicycle from the Canadian Rockies for the last three and a half months, and was on his way to—you guessed it—San Diego. Now that’s ambitious!
I did take the ninety minute long bus ride through the main valley and then stopped for dinner at Oscar’s Cafe. I checked into my hotel just before sunset (the reservation made the night before from Page). I debated whether to spend Saturday at Zion and another night at my hotel, but all the walking, cold air, and high altitude took their toll on me, and I knew that sticking around another day wasn’t the best idea.
Friday morning, I made the nine hour and twenty minute drive back to my home from Springdale, Utah, giving me time to restock groceries, cull through nearly 300 photos (you’ll see just 45 here), and write this post.
Even though there were some disappointments along the way, this was a successful trip where I experienced new things—Sedona, Page, and Glen Canyon—and refreshed my memory on a few places I had been three decades earlier. Now that I know my way around a little better, I’d go back to Sedona/Oak Creek, Page, and Zion.
One final odd footnote. It was cloudless the entire six days I was on the road. Not a single cloud on any day. Seriously. From a photography perspective, that makes for some pretty dull skies.
Total Hours Driving: 33 hours, 29 minutes
Total Distance: 1,587 miles / 2555 km
Fuel Consumption: 28.9 mpg / 8,1 L/100 km
Average speed: 48.7 mph / 78,4 km/h