Ghosts of Wahweap Wash, Grand Staircase/Escalante National Monument, Utah
On a recent adventure to the Colorado Plateau, after leading a 5 day photo workshop in Moab, Utah, good friend and colleague Ian Plant and myself spent a night out at the Towers of Silence in Wahweap Wash. Wahweap Wash Hoodoos are located inside the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument on the southern Utah border near Big Water and Lake Powell. There are two ways to get to the hoodoos, you can either drive in via a series of rough 4×4 roads from Cottonwood Canyon or if you happen to be driving a little piece of crap rental car, you can walk up from just outside of the town of Big Water.
We started our hike late in the afternoon under the burning heat of the spring sun and slugged and kicked our way through pockets of deep sand and many, many stream crossing before reaching the Towers of Silence after about 6 miles of walking. The day was clear and only a few clouds floated by in the sky. We quickly set up our camp for the night and then grabbed our camera gear in search of a few compositions in the fading light. I was at first, not very excited about the evening shoot. The lack of clouds and no direct light on the stone hoodoos was not looking so good for creating any dramatic landscape images. Either way, I headed out and started searching for possible nightscape compositions.
To my surprise while scouting out a comp for a possible nightscape, I noticed a single cloud blowing in from the east and just beginning to catch the last magnificent rays of sunset light. I quickly framed up a wide-angle composition from below the tallest and most photographed Hoodoo and patiently waited for the cloud to drift over head. To my luck and surprise, the cloud held onto the amazing light just long enough to get off a few shots before the show was over.
After catching those last rays of light, I moved into position to record a static star field image of the Tower of Silence. Only after working on the shot for about 15 minutes, I went for my fleece only to realize I had left it back at camp. The desert night was quickly becoming very cold and so I told Ian that I was going to retreat back to camp to get warm and start a small squall fire to keep us warm over night.
About an hour later, Ian came running back into camp thanking me profusely for starting the fire. We didn’t realize it at the time, but my small fire had been enough to illuminate the canyon walls and hoodoos of in the distance. Ian announced that he had spotted a white ghost hoodoo that I scouted earlier in the day that was catching light and a faint shadow on the back of the canyon wall. We ran of into the darkness to investigate the possibilities of shooting a starscape .
After a few high ISO test exposures and careful framing of the composition ( I was trying to pay careful attention and do a bit of guess-work to have the north star off-center to the right so the star trails would lead the eye back towards the hoodoo and it’s shadow), I was now ready to run my 40 minute exposure. I tripped open the shutter and we both fumbled our way back into camp. After a quick drink, we were off towards the wash to find dead wood to continue to stoke the fire making sure the scene was properly illuminated and bright enough for the shadow to cast on the canyon wall.
After a few drinks it was off to bed for a long cold night. My gear kept me warm and I awoke in the morning at dawn feeling refreshed and ready to go. We just so happened to be at the Towers at the right time of the year to get direct first morning light. I started out back on a hill shooting the towers with my telephoto lens to compress, but was unhappy with the results. I moved in close and used my wide-angle and the curving white badlands to lead the eye into the scene.
After a great morning shoot, I headed back to camp to pack it in and have a quick bite to eat. The sun was still quite low in the morning sky and the desert sage caught my attention in the backlight. I pulled out my telephoto and went waking along the wash looking for the right composition. I was lucky to find it before the sun moved too high in the sky and the soft glow was over.