FURTHER AFIELD: Southern Utah

We’re heading out on another road trip soon, this time to northern California’s Lost Coast and Redwood forests. We’ve been there before but the deserted beaches, forested mountains, and small towns are calling us back. The oversize scale of the coastal scenery and giant trees energizes us and reminds us how truly small we are, mere specks of passing dust on this great planet.

The trip is bound to generate photographic activity – I anticipate returning home with hundreds of photos because trips always produce a surfeit of images. In fact, there are dozens of decent photographs from the last road trip we took that I haven’t shown yet. In April we explored Southern Utah, another place where nature writes her stories with broad, bold strokes. I don’t know whether it’s the mind-expanding spaciousness of the landscape, the splendid variety of colors and shapes, or the spare, hard simplicity of the terrain that inspires me the most. I suppose it’s all that and more. The desert is surely a photographer’s dream.

Here’s a series of scenic views and close-ups of the high desert from the trip. Enjoy!

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1. On the Burr Trail, “…the most God-forsaken and wild looking country that was ever traveled…I never saw the poor horses pull and paw as they done today.” A pioneer wrote that in her journal in 1882. We followed a slow route of over 100 miles (161k), connecting Route 12, the Burr Trail, and Notom-Bullfrog Road. This remote desert circuit features jaw-dropping scenery and a series of dangerous, tight switchbacks dropping 800 feet (244 m) in a half-mile (0.8 km) of heart-stopping driving on a rough dirt track. We saw very few vehicles that afternoon. Deeply grateful for the privilege of traveling through some of the most extraordinary scenery in the US, we were also thankful that we didn’t get a flat tire.
2. Three juniper berries; Snow Rock State Park, Utah. We prefer less well-known parks like Snow Rock to busy Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks. The density of the crowds in the big-name parks makes it difficult to feel the uniqueness of these places. When you’re distracted by movement and conversations around you, it’s hard to ground yourself and allow all your senses to function freely.
3. Another view from the Burr Trail – Notom-Bullfrog Road loop. This part of the road is paved. Needless to say, there are no services and no cell phone reception for many miles.
4. An aspen leaf caught in a tangle of twigs at Capitol Reef National Park. Capitol Reef, a sprawling smorgasbord of delectable scenery, is our favorite place in southern Utah.
5. Snow Canyon SP boasts rock formations that startled us with their beauty and delighted us with their accessibility. Visitors can scramble over gentle mounds of Navaho sandstone. Though fun to walk on, the fine quartz grain surface of the sandstone is coarse to the touch, like sandpaper. In places, it looked to me like the wrinkled skin of a giant orange elephant. The white rock is also Navaho sandstone but has less iron content.
6. A view from Hidden Pinyon Trail, Snow Canyon SP.
7. Timber Creek Overlook Trail at Kolob Canyon in Zion NP. We chose to enter Zion from the north side at Kolob Canyon instead of the main entrance to the south. At a maximum 6,359′ elevation (1938m), our sea-level lungs struggled to deliver enough oxygen to our legs. We trudged up this short trail very slowly, stopping to rest on boulders where lizards slithered out of sight.
8. Weathered wooden posts and fences are a common sight in the high desert. This one was in Teasdale, Utah (population 194). We pulled over on the side of a back road when the outbuilding below, one of a cluster of weathered structures, caught our eyes. A woman walking home from the post office stopped to chat. Finding eager listeners, she spun a long yarn about the history of the place, which she had known since childhood.
9. Part of a complex built many years ago by a woman from Scandinavia who spent time in Japan, then moved here to the desert. She even constructed a small teahouse nearby and sometimes served Japanese-style tea to the neighbors. Now it’s all in ruins.
10. Noble even in its demise, this old tree, probably a cottonwood, makes its last stand near a two-lane highway in southwestern Utah.

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12. Curly grass, Snow Canyon.
13. In an aspen grove somewhere between the small towns of Torrey and Boulder.

14. A lichen-splashed rock beside a road in Torrey, Utah. Torrey, population 242, was our base for exploring Capitol Reef. Though it’s very small, it has several hotels, a few good restaurants, a terrific roadside espresso stand, and lots of rocks.
15. A view of Route 12 cutting through Capitol Reef NP, seen from the Hickman Bridge Trail.
16. A spreading cottonwood leans over a roadside creek in southwestern Utah. The smooth-surfaced boulder caught my eye, too.
17. The geological wonders of Snow Canyon.

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19. This is Thompson’s wooly milkvetch, or Wooly locoweed (Astragalus mollissimus thompsoniaen) according to someone who identified it on iNaturalist. I saw the flowers at Capitol Gorge, a narrow canyon that slices through the Waterpocket Fold, a hundred-mile-long fold in the earth’s crust that’s about 7,000 feet (2133m) higher on one side than the other. The gorge was a way to cross the giant wrinkle on the earth’s surface for pioneers traveling west.
20. Over the years, many pioneers carved their names and dates on the sides of Capitol Gorge canyon. Some of the earliest European-American settlers in the area made these marks high on the walls of the canyon as they passed through in hopes that flash floods would not obliterate the records. In the upper left of this photo, you can see one man’s attempt to draw his initials by shooting his gun into the rock.
21. Layers of volcanic ash, mud, sand, and silt deposited in swamps or lakes over 100 million years ago make up the softly contoured Bentonite hills. I photographed them from a rough dirt road in Capitol Reef’s north end. Footprints on the delicate surface can take years to disappear so there are no trails over these formations.
22. Extraordinary colors adorn a mountain of rock in Capitol Reef’s Cathedral Valley, a remote area of spectacular, cathedral-like rock forms. This photo was made closer to the main road where there are signs of civilization. After fifteen minutes or so of bone-crushing travel over a washboarded dirt road, hardly any signs of humans remain other than the road itself and the occasional cow wandering through the desert.
23. A wildflower – perhaps Desert mallow – at Snow Canyon.
24. Last year’s seeds still dangled from the trees in April at Capitol Reef.
25. To fly home we had to return to Las Vegas, Nevada, which entailed traveling over desolate, snow-covered high passes. It was a fitting way to exit a region where the landscape dwarfs human activity.

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78 comments

  1. Your landscapes of the rock formations are wonderful, Lynn. The one that stands out for me is #6; that sky is so dramatic. Fun to see your signature fallen-leaf photograph. I like the mostly high-key quality of that photo also. I’m always attracted to curly grass. Your #12 does it proud in black and white. The maple (?) seeds in #24 look great back lit and with the out-of-focus background—a style you have totally mastered. Thanks for sharing your rich trip; I hope this next one is just as rewarding.

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    • “Signature fallen leaf photograph” – funny! Thanks for your reactions. I went very high-key on the leaf and it’s good to hear you like the look. Rock formation landscapes are everywhere in that part of the world. That’s what we kept remarking on – no matter where we went, there were new colors and shapes to see. It was fun to review these six months later – a long enough time to make it look fresh again.

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  2. Years ago I worked with a person from Utah. He showed me quite a few of the photos he took and I forever believed Utah is one of the most beautiful places on Earth. You’ve provided more beautiful evidence. Again, you’ve made it difficult to pick a favorite but I must say the last photo struck a chord in me. Nice work, Lynn.

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    • It’s mind-bogglingly stupendous. 😉 Going over the photos six months after the trip brought the pleasure back all over again. It’s good to know you appreciate the last photo – I have a weakness for road photos, especially if they seem to go on forever. Thanks!

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    • Yes, it’s very, very dry and I don’t think I would want to live there but I love visiting. And it’s true, the views absolutely take your breath away but I’m always interested in the details, too – like you, I think. Thanks for comenting!

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  3. If as an amateur it is already difficult for me to manage the photographs I take, I imagine that for a professional it will be a gigantic task and for life! But certainly a pleasure even if occasionally it can cause some uneasiness…or not!
    About the images in this post…from the detail to the immensity, they are all beautiful. Thanks for sharing!
    Returning to places always implies a new look and new “flavors”. I hope you have a great trip!

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    • I’m actually not a professional if you define that as someone who makes money from their work. I sell very little because I don’t put effort into selling or promoting and I’m glad I don’t have to do that. But it’s true that I have too many photos! I depend on systems like dates, keywords, and my own ratings to help manage them. And the nice thing about having too many images is that when you go back after some time has passed, you’re pleasantly surprised by what you see.
      It’s my pleasure (I’m sure you understand!) to share these, especially when thoughtful comments appear under the photos. So thank you, too, and thanks for the good trip wish. 🙂

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    • I don’t think things have changed too much from those days, Simone. Weathering from the sun and wind slowly eats away at the landscape but the big picture is probably a lot like what the pioneers saw, and what the tribes who have lived there so long have always seen. People have worked really hard to preserve large portions of this landscape, thankfully. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

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  4. A fantastic series of photos of the sort of US landscapes I love! I was going to pick out favourites but there are just too many 😀 The folding rocks of Snow Canyon, the B&W dead cottonwood tree, the pop of colour in the flowers, the rock layers in Capitol Reef, the empty road back to Las Vegas … you make me want to return to Utah! But instead I think our next US trip could well be northern California so I’ll be following your adventures there with great interest 🙂

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    • Oh, interesting, I bet you’ll have an exciting trip. Of course, it’s a lot closer for us so we’ll only be gone for about a week. I guess the thing to remember about northern California is that it’s bigger than you expect, with long distances between places, especially where there are no highways. But you’re a very seasoned traveler so you probably know that.
      Thanks for your kind words, Sarah – if these made you want to go back then I did my job well. 😉

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  5. I’m thinking we might head down into the desert eventually. Though why we don’t venture more often to the closer Redwoods is beyond me? Perhaps it’s the dispersed camping that makes it so much easier to get away from it all out in the desert, rather than the more populated California? I dunno.

    As always, I truly enjoyed your unique and singular vision of these marvelous landscapes…
    Favorites (if i must):
    2… (never overlooking the smaller things)
    Have you ever read any stuff written by Ellen Meloy? My favorite titles of hers are “The Anthropology of Turquoise” (essays of her life in Red Rock country) and “Eating Stone”… poetic prose of her life following the SW Bighorn sheep.
    18 & 19 (seems I’m drawn to the smaller things in this series, this time)
    21 & 22 makes me think of our Painted Hills, not so far from here.
    21-24 wishing I’d taken the time to explore more of Capitol Reef…
    25 and then the long miles headed homeward. Our return is usually a lot slower down on the ground. Those miles can seem to go on forever at times… but they don’t often get wearisome.

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    • Hmmm… seems I missed the first paragraph with my cut ‘n paste of the above comment.
      So here it is: (sorry) 🥴
      A long enough time to remind us how marvelous this region can be. Including fading memories of Snow Canyon. You took me back to the 80s decade when I lived close enough to spend many enjoyable hours/days/weeks exploring before it became necessary to avoid the crowds at the more popular parks. Luckily there’s still enough uncluttered landscape left to enjoy that sense of being lost in solitude of that expansive desert region. All the more to enjoy your delicious take on all the natural wonder of it.

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  6. I love idea of weathered old elephants napping in the desert, #8 might be a two-humped camel. And those studies of the ground in 2 and 8 really hooked me, with the juniper berries getting their due consideration, displayed like semi-precious minerals. And that wooly locoweed is just a charmer, isn’t it, I’ve never seen that plant anywhere. I do kind of hope the initials-by-bullet-hole thing doesn’t catch on around here with the local graffiti kids, we’ve got enough lead flying around. I haven’t been out to the desert since college and been missing it, really enjoyed catching a sight of it in this beautiful album.

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    • It’s cool that you appreciated the ground studies. There are so many things that we overlook but that can be viewed as precious. Here’s hoping graffiti by gunfire doesn’t become a thing. We wondered about the ricocheted bullets…..
      Thanks for the good words, Robert. The desert is so unique, I hope you’re able to go there again before too long.

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  7. Just the right post for me right now, as I’m sitting under the skylight listening to the trickling rain from a gray sky, dear Lynn, while you’re probably already on your way to Northern California.

    As paradisically beautiful as the southern Utah landscape is, without crowds, cell phone network, gas stations, billboards … at the same time there is a lack of easy and quick access to help when it is needed. You say it.  And yet I understand the longing to expose oneself to it again and again.

    Your concept of mixing scenic overviews, details, short stories and historical information works: one deepens the impression of the other.  In #18, the juniper berries, I got momentarily dizzy as my brain switched back and forth between very small details and a big bird’s-eye view of bushes and round, greenish boulders.  After the brief system crash, however, everything worked smoothly again.

    Once again, I find your black and white photos outstanding. And how you use picture #13 (only apparently black and white, the cool beige background gives it away) to make the transition back to the colored pictures – masterly!

    As always, I am fascinated when writing appears somewhere as a greeting from human culture to the wilderness.  I don’t like it that much with scratched tree bark, but I think the tracks in the rock face are great!  Ammunition does not seem to have been a scarce or precious commodity, at least not for that one contemporary.

    Thanks for the great pleasure of these pictures, Lynn.  And bon voyage to you both.  I’m looking forward to the new, completely different photos to come

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    • Replying on the tiny phone screen while I was away was challenging so I saved this. 😉 It’s nice to imagine you scrolling through desert photos while a gentle rain soaks your garden. By the way, we finally have rain, after an unprecedented (I think) 4 months of almost nothing at all. And now the forecast says it will rain tomorrow through 6th November at least. But we all know that can change!
      The raw wildness of the desert we explored is what attracts us to parts of the landscape we just returned from, too. Huge, empty beaches backed by endless hills with only a few dirt roads slicing up the vast quiet. Yes, there’s something emotionally healing about being in places like that.
      It’s good to see that the mix of subjects worked, in your opinion. Sorry I caused that system crash though! Too funny. You’re right about the pale #13 providing a bridge. 🙂
      We don’t like newer scratches on trees or rocks but we admire the historical ones. People can’t resist doing it and there are prominent signs in that canyon warning people that cameras are watching, in a remote place like that! But it’s true, we saw a small camera perched high up, trained on the walls. (I’m sure ammunition was plentiful; they depended on it for food and self-defense!).
      The new photos are a little wetter…and foggier…
      Thanks, Ule! Have a good evening!

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  8. By the time I get around to looking at your articles and commenting, everything has usually been said already in the comments by others… 😂 (I hope that laugh-cry emoji will show)

    And somewhat expected I guess, I like the intimate details that you found and photographed the most. Judging from the flowers and “felty” leaves, #23 does look like a Desert Mallow to me indeed. 🙂

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    • Thanks for the confirmation. I wish I could have spent more time at the special botanical area. Some strange plants there, very high elevation, very tough environment. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I’ll comment on your post soon, hopefully. We’re on the road now- thanks!

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  9. Wonderful images and stories about a place not too far from me. You’ve certainly provided a very unique and beautiful take on this area. The rock formation’s design and texture in 6 is fascinating! The close-up nature studies are so well seen and composed, as always. I visited Capitol Reef for a few days, some years back. Now is a good time to go because the Cottonwoods peak the last 2 weeks in October.

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    • I bet it’s cold now! I’ve gotten used to mid-range temperatures and I really feel the cold. But I’m sure the cottonwoods are gorgeous. We had quite a lot of snow overnight but it melted quickly. It was a trip full of “Wow!” Thanks for your thoughts. It’s time fir you to go back!

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  10. The landscape is fascinating and must be even more when you see it in person. The patterns and structures of the rocks are amazing. What I love here most are the details. The black and whites are nice! The little flowers are astonishing and beautiful at the same time. Astonishing little survivers in a challenging surrounding. If you showed #21 without a comment, I would have thought it is on the moon or on Mars. Too harsh for me, but maybe a good set for a SciFi movie 😉 Great pictures. Thank you for taking us with you and showing your enthusiasm for this special landscape.

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    • It’s so much more impactful in person, especially the way the landscape constantly changes, with every bend in the road. It’s harsh but that makes the beauty more intense. The adaptations that plants have made are fascinating – you would love that. With so much noise of all kinds in our world today, spending time in a place like this is just what the doctor ordered. ☺️

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  11. Another beautiful set of images from Southern Utah, Lynn. Years ago my brothers and I drove across that area from Bryce Canyon up to Moab. We drove through Capital Reef on Route 24 and I remember seeing mountains similar to the one in #22 and wondering what it was like up close. I assume it is all solid rock but the way it is eroded is puzzling to me…reminding me that the whole area is a wonderful puzzle with so many unusual landforms. Thanks for taking us all along with you…

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    • Sometimes the rock looks soft or crumbly but it’s not. A lot of the colors are warm, which is partly why the rock in #22 was so appealing. As I think I said in the text, it’s just one surprise after another. That middle stretch of southern Utah is stunning – lucky you for making that trip. I’m glad this brought it back, thanks for commenting.

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  12. While I certainly enjoy the grand landscape shots I think it’s the detail shots that really draw me in. They seem to let you feel a close association with the area and what it must really be like there. Very special.

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    • Both are important, right? I think so anyway. The details are easier for me so I’ve been working on improving what I do with the wider views. Always a work in progress! Thanks, Howard!

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      • Yes, both are important. I sort of think that most people feel more ‘natural’ with one or the other. Same thing with views. I feel more natural isolating with a telephoto than going wide. But like you, I push myself to use what doesn’t feel as natural to me.

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  13. So many fabulous images Lynn … the rock formations are stunners! But my favourite is the last one .. there is something about an expanse of road and clouds! Mind you, #7 is framed beautifully. Not sure about the lack of oxygen though! Wonderful post ..thanks for sharing your trip with us 😊

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    • As cliched as it may be I agree (obviously!), there’s something about seeing the wide open road ahead, especially with a nice sky. It’s my pleasure to share the trip – and now another one in the newest post, much shorter and to a different kind of place. It’s good to be able to travel again! I hope our winter doesn’t shut things back down if the pandemic and flu season act up. Ah, life!

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