Northern Arizona and southern Utah are abundant in scenic landscapes. Strong winds carry fine desert sand that erode the rocks in the region to create exquisite shapes and patterns. The region is popularly known as the Grand Circle and encompasses more than a dozen National Parks including Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, and the Arches National Parks. In this article, I've taken two locations in the Grand Circle - Horseshoe Bend and the Antelope Canyon.
Hundreds of thousands of tourists visit the south rim of the Grand Canyon every year. One of the best ways to experience more of the magnificent landscapes of the Grand Circle is to make a short day trip to Page, Arizona. Page is a little town that thrives mainly due to a large number of visitors to the nearby Lake Powell and the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Highway 89 cuts through Page just south of the Arizona-Utah border.
To reach Page from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, take east bound Highway 64 from inside Grand Canyon National Park. Hwy 64, known within the National Park boundaries as Desert View Drive, passes through the Grandview Point, Moran Point, Lipan Point, and the Navajo point. A few miles past Navajo point and the Desert View area, one should hit the National Park's east entrance. Continue on Hwy 64 for about 50 miles to Cameron, AZ where it intersects Hwy 89. Take northbound Hwy 89 and Page is about 80 miles away.Horseshoe Bend
Horseshoe Bend, our first location, is right on the way to Page. Just about five miles south of Page, on Hwy 89, one should lookout for a small signboard that reads "Horseshoe Bend Overlook". It's extremely easy to miss this signboard, so one has to closely look out for it. If you've reached the intersection with Hwy 98, you've gone too far. If you are coming down south from Page, there is a signboard on that side as well. Make a turn westwards at the signboard, and in less than a quarter of a mile the road should end at a small clearing where cars could be parked. Because this location is unknown to most tourists to the Grand Canyon, this parking lot usually has ample empty spots. From the parking lot, the overlook is three quarters of a mile away. There is a well marked trail that leads to the overlook. However, the trail consists mostly of loose desert sand and it can be a very strenous hike. So carry lots of water or other fluids.
As you walk down the trail, loose desert sand gives way to sandstone rocks that date back to the early Jurassic period. Over millions of years, wind and water have eroded these rocks to create absolutely wierd, but awe inspiring shapes and patterns.
Upon reaching the overlook, one is awed by the magnificence of the landscape that cannot be expressed in words or through a photograph. The overlook is at the top of a steep orange colored cliff several hundreds of feet high. Down below, an emerald green Colorado river makes a horse-shoe shaped bend before rushing towards the Grand Canyon.
One would require a very wide angle lens to capture the bend in its entirety. I would recommend a full-frame equivalent of about 17mm. On cropped sensor digital cameras, a focal length of about 10-14mm should do very well. In my trip, I used a Tamron SP 11-18mm f/4.5-5.6 along with my Canon EOS 20D. In addition, I would also recommend a polarizer to remove some haze. In summer months, there is a good possibility of storm clouds and bland, white skies. A 2-stop or a 3-stop Graduated Neutral Density filter can help bring out details in the sky and make the photograph interesting. An 85 series warming filter can do wonders as well.
Antelope Canyon is located a few miles east of Page near Hwy 98. It is one of the most popular slot canyons and rightly so. Water and wind, over millions of years, have created one of the most specatular formations on sandstone. At Antelope Canyon, the Navajo sandstone was eroded by flash floods creating a long "slot" through the rocks. Wind, carrying fine grains of sand, then shaped the walls of the slot creating a plethora of shapes and psychelic patterns. Sunlight enters the canyon through small openings at the top and bounces off the canyon walls to create mind-blowing colors and shadows. I consider my visit to Antelope canyon an experience of my lifetime.
The Antelope Canyon area is administered by the Navajo tribe, and they require a fee to be paid. Currently, the canyon can be visited only when accompanied by authorized tour guides. I highly recommend "Antelope Canyon Tours" run by Roger Ekis. He takes visitors in a modified 4WD pick-up truck which has seats at the back. It feels a little wierd but it's fun! For photographers, he has a tour starting at 11.30am which reaches the canyon at high noon when the lighting is the most brilliant. It's a two hour tour and it's sufficient time to photograph. I would also recommend an advance reservation, especially during summer months.
Antelope Canyon is one location that was popularized solely by photographers. Aside from its magnificence, the reason Antelope Canyon draws so many photographers is because it presents a great challenge ground for them. Inside the canyon, the luminosity could range anywhere between 8EV and 10EV. Exposure time is often in the order of tens of seconds at ISO 100. So a sturdy tripod and a quick release for your camera are absolutely necessary. It is useful to have a spot meter or a partial meter either in your camera or as a separate accessory. Your camera should also let you perform exposure compensation quickly and reliably. The canyon is just about four to five feet wide, so the presence of even a few people can seem like a crowd. So be considerate to other photographers and absolutely refrain from using a flash. Since you'll be making very long exposures, make sure your batteries have enough juice. If in doubt, carry an extra set of batteries. In 35mm equivalent terms, one would need focal lengths ranging from 17mm to about 70mm to exploit most possibilities in terms of composition.