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  • Writer's pictureAlyce Bender

Whirlwind Southwest Photography Trip

Updated: Jul 9, 2021

Sunset over White Sands National Park National Monument New Mexico | A Bender Photography LLC

Nikon D500 | Tamron 10-24mm | 1/25 | f/29 | ISO 320

Lets start with the numbers: five states (four that I actually photographed in during the trip), 12 days, and roughly 55 hours behind the wheel covering about 3100 miles. If all things were equal, this would only equate to covering about 258 miles a day or 4.5 hours of driving each day. But all things are not equal as we all know. There were some days that were 12 hour drives and others that were just two to three hours.

What started this all? Well, a culmination of factors had me thinking this was a good idea. One was that my RV, beloved as it was, was being sold and I had it stored in Arizona. The sale happened to take place the weekend before the Outsiders Conference in Kanab, UT. It didn't make much sense to me to head back my Texas home between the two events, so I went to my home-away-from-home, Las Vegas, NV. However, once leaving Kanab, I routed myself through New Mexico to finally photograph White Sands National Park.

From the beginning I knew it was a lot of miles to cover. But, hey, its part of the job and I've gotten good at creating playlists for myself. A quick stop in Tucson, AZ, and I was relieved of my beast of an RV to a gentleman from Utah. It has taken me no time to start replacing it though, with something a bit more agile and suited for my particular style of travel. Currently, I have an Earth Traveler teardrop trailer being crafted for me in Santa Fe, NM with an estimated completion date of next Spring. Long wait right? Small business + unique and quality product = a win. Well worth it for what I will receive!

Anyway, from Tucson I headed up to Las Vegas to cool my heels for a few days until the Outsiders Conference. With nothing pressing, I visited my favorite photography spot in the Vegas area: Valley of Fire State Park. For those who have not been, I highly recommend it. Not only are there beautiful landscapes but, my absolute favorite part about this park is the herds of desert bighorn sheep that can be found there.

Two desert bighorn sheep rams graze in the Nevada desert outside Las Vegas | A Bender Photography LLC

Nikon D500 | Tamron 150-600mm G2 | 1/1600 | f/7.1 | ISO 640

Side note: The Journal of Wildlife Photography just published the 2021 Spring edition and my column this quarter is on desert bighorn sheep. Highly suggest subscribing so you can check it out along with all the other great content. You can also access back issues as well and each issue is essentially an e-book with how much information is presented.

I was thrilled to spend time with both a herd of rams and then find the ewe herd with lambs as well. Spring finds these animals separated by sex and they wont co-mingle generally until the fall rut. The rams were the ones I found first on the outskirts of the park. Having timed my arrival with sunrise, I wasn't actually expecting to start out photographing the bighorns. My plan was to actually try to capture some sunrise landscape pictures. However, as I was taking the below image, the rams made themselves known. Can you spot it?

Sunrise over the west entrance of Valley of Fire State Park Nevada with golden light and mountains | A Bender Photography LLC

Nikon D500 | Tamron 18-400mm | 1/60 | f/13 | ISO 100

(See in the bottom left corner? Also disregard the signs.)

The rams were mostly making their way along the brush line just off the highway, nibbling on fresh growth blooming after the area had rain the day before. Thankfully the sun's position meant that I had beautiful golden light in my favor while photographing them.

Photo tip: Go early! Desert animals are more likely to be moving and active in the early morning hours when it is coolest. Also, in areas known to be frequented by roaming animals, leave earlier than expected so that you don't feel tempted to speed. Several of the rams almost got hit by a truck racing through the area on their way to the park proper. Wildlife doesn't understand park boundaries and can easily appear further out than you might anticipate.

Two large desert bighorn sheep rams one turned away from teh camera and one looking directly at the camera through the Nevada desert brush | A Bender Photography LLC

"Heads and Tails"

Nikon D500 | Tamron 150-600mm G2 | 1/1000 | f/7.1 | ISO 800

Featured by the Wild Sheep Foundation on Instagram and in the Journal of Wildlife Photography.

Anyway, I was able to spend about an hour or so with them before I decided it was time to move further into the park and see if I couldn't find the ewes on their ritualistic trek to the manmade watering hole near the visitor's center. Now, when I first started visiting the park years ago, I use to find them by the visitor's center in the mornings because they would come down and vandalize the irrigation systems put in to keep the shrubbery around the center beautified. The bighorns know how to find water in the desert, even if it means breaking a few sprinkler heads to get it. I guess after having to constantly repair the irrigation system, the park decided it is easier/cheaper to offer them an actual water hole. So that is what they have now. The ewes especially have to drink each day as they raise their young. Rams can go slightly longer without water, but desert bighorns, while they prefer to find water each day, can go without water for up to three days - even in the summer!

A mature desert bighorn sheep ewe female stands with her young baby spring lamb in Valley Of Fire State Park Nevada outside Las Vegas | A Bender Photography LLC

Nikon D500 | Tamron 150-600mm G2 | 1/2500 | f/7.1 | ISO 500

Here is a picture of the same lamb just a month later (I may have just gotten back from Vegas again). You can see his horns have been growing as he develops both his physical size and his considerable skills on the rocks. Both male and female desert bighorns have horns which start to emerge shortly after birth. They use them not only in defense but also as a primary tool for breaking into barrel cactus in order to reach the succulent interior flesh during the height of summer.

A desert bighorn sheep lamb leaps off a bounder in Valley of Fire State Park Nevada outside Las Vegas | A Bender Photography LLC

Nikon D500 | Tamron 150-600mm G2 | 1/1250 | f/6 | ISO 2500

After a handful of days in Vegas, I made the three hour drive to Kanab the evening before the Outsiders Conference began. This was the first official gathering for this Conference which had to postpone twice last year due to Covid. I am thrilled that the organizers which include Ryan Smith, Phil Monson, David Swindler, and Dustin LeFevre, persisted through the trials and tribulations of 2020 and were able to offer both an in-person and virtual experience for those wanting to participate this year. Being there in person, the first live mass conference in many months, it felt great to meet the roughly 75 other amazing photographers, all of us learning from one another. Events like these really help bring a spring back into my step and lift me out of any creative rut I may find myself in. There is something about being around likeminded individuals to really help push you to your next level.

That being said, I actually played hooky from the conference for one afternoon and did not get back until late the next morning. Action Photo Tours - a company based out of Kanab, run by David, and a big sponsor of the conference - happened to be offering an overnight trip to White Pocket in the Vermillion Cliff National Monument, just over the border into Arizona. White Pocket is a difficult location to get to due to the terrain between where the pavement ends and the actual formation. A 4x4 high clearance vehicle is just the start of what you need. You also need some off-road driving skills to handle both deep soft sand and sharp slick rock. Lastly, you need to know where you are going as there is an entire network of rancher trails on the monument and Google Maps isn't the most reliable in this neck of the woods.

Sandstone wave formations and striations at White Pocket in northern Arizona at sunset | A Bender Photography LLC

Nikon D500 | Tamron 10-24mm | 0.8sec | f/16 | ISO 250 | Benro tripod

I have been to White Pocket before and it wasn't an ideal trip to say the least and I needed a redemption trip. This was it, so I went, and it was absolutely worth it. Camping overnight gave me the chance to be there through sunset and for sunrise. If I was more into astrophotography, I could have easily shot through much of the night. These are my three favorite images from the trip and I have others waiting to be edited.

Sunset light reflects off sandstone striations at White Pocket in northern Arizona | A Bender Photography LLC

Nikon D500 | Tamron 10-24mm | 1/10 | f/16 | ISO 250 | Benro tripod

Logistics tip: Hire a guide to get you out to White Pocket! Don't try to make it in a rental and run up a $1500 tow bill when you get stuck. Happens every week...Oh, and make sure to spend the night. Sunrise and sunset are the two best times of the day for this location. Check out Action Photo Tours if you want more than the "tourist with a cell phone" experience. Learn from the mistake I made several years ago on my first visit to White Pocket where I captured nothing usable. Another example of why this visit was a redemption trip for me...

Unique orange and white sandstone formations at sunset in White Pocket, Northern Arizona | A Bender Photography LLC

Nikon D500 | Tamron 10-24mm | 1/30 | f/16 | ISO 250 | Benro tripod

Upon returning to the conference which was wrapping up, a group of us decided to head out for a sunset shoot at a rather random slot canyon just outside Kanab. What was suppose to be just a kind of quick out-and-back trip turned into an entire evening/night of adventure with 4x4 trucks, loaded with gear, getting stuck in moon dust sand (picture walking through fine baking flour). Anyways, I didn't really get any shooting in so I'll share a quick cell phone shot I took while scouting for rocks that we would later use as traction under the tires to help get the vehicles out...eventually. In the end (2am) we did get both trucks out after a lot of team work and it will be a story and memories for years to come.

Trucks stuck in the sand unimpressed

Please don't think I was mad. My face just rests that way and I didn't think to actively smile for this documentary picture. It was an adventurous experience that was kind of fun having to use critical thinking skills and fieldcraft knowledge.

Safety tip: Make sure when exploring off-road, especially in the desert, you have plenty of drinking water and some high energy rations somewhere in your vehicle. Typically I carry between two to five gallons of water depending on how far from "civilization" I plan to be. When factoring how far I am, I think in walking distance to a major interstate highway or town or ranch community not driving. Water is a precious resource in the desert. Don't take it nor cell service for granted and end up stuck without items to survive. You are not a desert bighorn that can survive three days without water.

Several hours later, I broke camp and headed towards home in San Antonio, TX. Between Kanab and San Antonio is the Land of Enchantment. Sometimes I wonder about the State's slogans, but New Mexico does deliver on theirs in many ways. White Sands National Park, one of the newest parks in the system, has been on my list to visit for years now. I have actually been in the area multiple times over the past three years, but this area has some sensitive operating hours due to the proximity to the White Sands Missile Range. That and twice I've been in the area when there have been government shutdowns which also meant the park was closed for extended periods of time.

The timing of this visit couldn't have been better. Not only was the park open until 9pm to day users, which allowed me to stay through sunset and catch a bit of blue hour without having to backcountry camp, but a friend and fellow photographer, Aaron Martinez, made time to come meet me for an afternoon of exploring the dunes, a place he has spent many hours over the years he lived in the area.

Gypsum sand dune reflecting blue skies at White Sands National Park at sunset | A Bender Photography LLC

Nikon D500 | Tamron 10-24mm | 1/100 | f/16 | ISO 800

White Sands gets its name from the very white gypsum sand dunes that cover this piece of land. The sands can reflect the colors of the sky easily and various areas have some desert dwelling plants that somehow eek out a life here in the ever-changing and harsh environment.

Layers of sand dunes in late afternoon light with a small bush at White Sands National Park New Mexico | A Bender Photography LLC

Nikon D500 | Tamron 100-400mm| 1/500 | f/13 | ISO 320

It is a land of endless abstracts and minimalist compositions.

Abstract landscape of sand dune layers at White Sands National Park in New Mexico | A Bender Photography LLC

Nikon D500 | Tamron 100-400mm | 1/1000 | f/8 | ISO 320

Photo tip: Go early with a telephoto lens (like a 100-400mm) and study the subtle lines of shadows, the ridges against the sky, and if you are lucky enough to have a few clouds, play with the minimalist photography opportunities a muted color pallet presents. Challenge yourself to see the details as a full picture or to ignore the details for just the general shapes the land and sky create together.

A single cloud floats over the white gypsum sand dunes against blue sky in White Sands National Park, NM | A Bender Photography LLC

Nikon D500 | Tamron 100-400mm | 1/800 | f/13 | ISO 320

Safety tip: Make sure you have at least a compass, preferably a tracking GPS, when entering the dune fields. Know how to use your devices! If you stay out past sunset, it can be very disorienting on the dunes.

I found myself falling in love with yet another spot on this vast planet. I already have plans in the works to return to White Sands for a longer stay and more exploring.

The orange glow of post sunset lights the skies over White Sands National Park Monument in New Mexico | A Bender Photography LLC

Nikon D500 | Tamron 100-400mm | 0.5sec | f/16 | ISO 250 | Benro tripod

Overall it was an amazing way to get back into the swing of traveling as places open to more visitors. Fully vaccinated, I look forward to getting out more often and exploring more of this and other countries from my new home in Texas.

Until next time, cheers!

Minimalist image of a white gypsum sand dune peak against light blue sky in White Sands National Park Monument in New Mexico | A Bender Photography LLC

Nikon D500 | Tamron 100-400mm | 1/500 | f/13 | ISO 320

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