THE VERTICAL WORLD OF ZION

January 25, 2017  •  Leave a Comment

Southern Utah is one of my favorite places to photograph in the United States.  Along the southern tier of the State, known as the Escalante Staircase, lie no less than five spectacular national parks and a national monument; the western most is Zion.

I consider Zion in the same category with Yosemite, Yellowstone, and the Grand Canyon, a crown jewel in the national park system.  Within its boundaries, and those of adjacent parks, is some of the most rugged, extraordinary and varied landscape in the United States.  To properly understand the geography one must view it in the context as a part of the larger Colorado plateau that covers the entire southwestern United States including the Grand Canyon, indeed the entire Colorado River drainage system.  It is vast, largely bereft of human habitation, some of it inaccessible and unexplored.  I can think of only a handful of photographers who have photographed this region in detail. Even from a more "manageable" perspective one could isolate Zion and easily spend the better part of a lifetime photographing this one portion of the Colorado plateau.

To photograph such a place requires more than just a casual day or two visit.  My experience has been that the first visit to such a place is largely a reconnaisance, a learning experience.  Then on subsequent visits, after having sorted things out, one can systematically cover a place piece by piece.  One could concentrate on many subjects, landscape, water, plants, wildlife, differing points of view, etc.  I think I have visited Zion four times which means I'm getting a start.  To put this in perspective I have visited Yosemite on dozens of occasions (because it's closer), hiking through it on foot as well, and still have room for more inspiration; I will never exhaust the potential.  Such is my feeling about Zion.  I think I am still in the stage of looking at it from a macro point of view, e.g., trying to accomplish too much with each visit.  Perhaps I'm ready to begin "drilling down" to a micro level.  When one is at the point of approaching a subject from that point of view I think the subject matter becomes sharper, more focused, delivering a more cogent message.  Alas, there just isn't enough time to do it justice. 

Most visitors see this park on one or two occasions from the shuttle bus, or by hiking some of the easier trails.  That is a start, but there is more.  There are units off the beaten track and an incredible hike through the "narrows" of the Virgin river which only the more determined visitors attempt.  I spent several days there in 2012 concentrating on something different each day.  One day on that occasion I ventured into the narrows for an incredible experience.  A few of those images appear with this new portfolio, "The Vertical World of Zion", and inspired the portfolio title.  The title is self explanatory. 

Experiencing the Narrows requires a bit of work although there is a well worn path into the gorge...the river. Most visitors hike a mile to the mouth of the gorge then turn around.  While a gorgeous hike to that point it is just the beginning.  The real experience starts once one steps into the river.  Fifty yards into the gorge I found myself up to my chest in cold water.  Just as I thought I might be a swimmer the river "shallowed out" and became merely a wade.  There was no alternative; water often extends from wall to wall and a good portion of the time in the canyon is spent in the water.  The canyon walls become higher as one proceeds into the gorge and vertical walls on either side rise hundreds of feet above, nearly touching in places.  The sky becomes just a narrow ribbon far above the river.  One has the feeling at once of being entombed in the Earth and in the midst of a vast cathedral; a feeling of confinement...and yet it is so huge!  Human beings appear so small and insignificant compared to the vastness in which one stands.  While perhaps not a religious experience one's thoughts certainly point in that direction.  There are only two exits, 1) to continue several rugged, wet miles to the upper entrance or 2) return the way one came.  For this reason it can also be a death trap.  Canyons such as this in the southwest are prone to flash floods and it would be fatal to be caught in one in this place.  It is wise to check the weather throughout the entire region AND with the Park Service before entering the narrows.  Rain a hundred miles away could result in massive water draining through this canyon.  One must understand that while the "little" Virgin River might appear benign it is the instrument by which this massive canyon was created.  A chaos of boulders, trees, etc., testifies to the raging torrent it can be.  It cuts deeper into the Earth year after year, century after century, millennia after millennia.

On my excursion into the Narrows I met a couple who had started the previous day at the upper end of the canyon expecting to exit the lower end that same day.  They had been overcome by darkness the previous night and forced to spend a cold, wet night in the Narrows without supper or a place to shelter.  They were in no danger or difficulty...but were ready for some dry clothing and a hot meal.  Still they seemed quite upbeat about the whole experience.  They were a tough pair.  

I had opportunity to visit Zion again this past October for a couple of days.  I had to pass up the Narrows on this occasion due to limited time and hip and knee problems, but was able to concentrate on fall colors, a herd of Big Horns, and shooting "painterly" shots with Lensbaby optics along the Virgin River.  The possibilities are endless and limited only by the imagination.

 

 


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