• Alyce Bender

The Classic Southwest Landscape


For a photographer used the humid, swampy Floridian prairies and the dense Appalachian forests, the desert areas of the Southwest United States are entirely unique to behold. When I first encountered them a few years ago, it was as if I had landed on a different planet. And yet, it was love at first sight. Determined to see as much as I could on my Arizona exploration tour back in March, I spent the first week in northern Arizona with a few adventures over the border into southern Utah.

Photo tip: Plan on spending as much time as you can spare out here. There is so much to see and huge distances to cover that you will always have something to shoot regardless of how long you plan to stay.

Page, AZ, was my first stop. Home to Antelope Canyon, Horseshoe Bend, and Lake Powell, Page is an awesome base camp for several days. My last post, Magical Heart of the Desert: Antelope Canyon specifically talks about my experiences in the famed slot canyons, so take a look here for that.

Initially, Horseshoe Bend was nothing like I thought it would be. It is literally a roadside pull-off along Highway 89 to the southwest of town. I also had imagined it would be much like the Grand Canyon where the edge is located just as you get out of your car; however this is not the case. Be prepared to hike 1.2 miles roundtrip on a softer sand path that starts as an incline, and then has a long slope down to the actual Bend ledge overlook. Take water, and as a note to photographers, try not to go mid-day.

Golden hour is the best time to visit, as the temperatures begin cooling off and the wildlife start coming out of the brushwork. Small desert lizards and desert cottontails were everywhere. Also, sunset at Horseshoe Bend will produce the classic images that have made this location so famous. Hope for some clouds to help give your sky a nice interesting element, or find compositions that remove the sky.

Photo tip: Arrive early to scout and claim your spot for the evening. It is a very popular spot and people will spread out across the entire horseshoe.

Following Page, I made a day trip up to Kanab, UT, to tour South Coyote Buttes (permit required) and White Pocket. Now, not everything goes as planned when traveling and, especially with group tours, timing for photography is not always the priority. Researching your tour guide is the best way to avoid this, but sometimes, even with the best research, you can get a bad photography tour. Try to make the best of things if this happens. For me, this is what happened when in Kanab. So, to try to salvage what I could of the day, I tried to concentrate on the textures and patterns within the landscapes we were traversing.

Photo tip: Black and white images are perfect for showing off these elements, as flat blue skies turn black and the light colored rocks just pop with patterns.

Following the rather photographically disappointing day in Kanab, I moved on to, what would become the real highlight of northern Arizona to me: Monument Valley!

First, let me start off by saying I am very thankful to the people of the Navajo Nation for allowing visitors like myself to experience this landscape. It truly is a wonder of Nature, and I was honored to be able to see it first hand.

My first morning in the Valley, I met with Tully, a Navajo local with Phillips Photography Tours, before dawn. Tully was an exceptional guide: friendly, knowledgeable, and very patient. We drove out to an area only accessible if you have Navajo accompaniment to start the day. Thick cloud cover had us worried there would be no real sunrise viable, however patience paid off, and as the sun crept up, a band opened up at the horizon. Just moments after the image below was taken, the sunlight disappeared above the clouds and the sky melted to a slate grey for the remainder of the morning with occasional breaks in the clouds.

Photo tip: Hire a guide to access areas other then the general public loop in Monument Valley.

Once the sun rose, we moved on to other areas of the valley. One stone slab had ancient petroglyphs carved into the rock face. These archaeological artifacts give us an idea of what this area might have looked like thousands of years ago. Antelope no longer roam the Valley, yet, here in the heart there are hand-carved depictions of antelope and hunters.

The sunrise tour ended mid-morning, so I decided to venture out of Monument Valley to another, lesser known, park: Bears Ears National Monument. Within this newest member (and highly contested by the current administration) of the National Park/Monument/Forest system, lies the Valley of the Gods.

This amazing 17-mile dirt track though sparsely visited public lands is nothing short of breathtaking. With the weather turning, the skies formed an ominous blanket over the Valley that just begged to be captured. Due to the weather, I did not stray from the road though for further exploration. Next time...

In the two days I was in the area, I was present for one of the Valley's rare snowstorms. Quite unexpectedly, I awoke in my sleeping bag to the car being covered in a dusting of snow and knew I needed to get to the valley overlook as soon as possible. I wasn't able to get many shots as the winds were howling and it was difficult to even stand, but I was able to capture a bit of sunrise over the Mittens with snow on the ground.

Driving away from Monument Valley, on the road to southern Arizona, I had to pull over and take one more shot. By that time, the sun rose enough to start giving a really nice warm hue to the formations and the wind drove a good amount of snow against the base of this butte, creating wonderful contrasting colors. This ended up as one of my favorite images from the trip.

Photo tip: The U-turn can be one of the most powerful tools in a travel photographer's bag. It only takes a few additional moments and can create some stunning results. Don't go home saying "Oh I wish I had stopped..."

I could go on and on about northern Arizona, but it is best if you just go see for yourself. All I will say is that I cannot wait to go back at some point.

My next article will be a bit of a jump in topic as I recap my short trip to Oahu, Hawaii. If you want to know the backstory of any of the images or locations you have seen here on my website or Facebook, let me know! I'm more than willing to write articles based on reader request.

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