Photography locations - Utah

Cottonwood Canyon, Utah

08.20.13 | 1 Comment

I recently spent four months in my camper traveling through the southwest, Wyoming, and Montana. While in Utah, I was following the guidance of Laurent Martres in his wonderful, three-volume series titled “Photographing the Southwest.” Utah is covered in volume 1, with Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado addressed in volumes 2 and 3. I find it to be a remarkably good series with a lot of detailed locational information that can be of great use to anyone looking for good places to photograph in the American Southwest.

Cottonwood Canyon in Utah is part of the Cockscomb, a 50-mile fault crossing the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in the north and on through the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument to the south. Cottonwood Canyon runs north-south between Scenic Byway 12 and US 89. I started at the southern end, with the road intersecting US 89 a couple of miles east of the Paria Contact Station. Cottonwood Canyon is administered by the BLM, and its liberal camping policies were much appreciated. While this section of road could be easily driven in a day, I spent five full days exploring the area during the last part of May.

Two notes of caution. Much of the area and the road consist of clay, and you absolutely don’t want to try to drive on a clay road when it is wet. I was once stranded for three days on a clay road in eastern Montana during an unusual October rain, and again when visiting Freezeout Lake in north-central Montana when photographing snow geese in March (see my first blog post). Wet clay is a remarkable substance — as slick as ice and as sticky as glue. Even a four-wheel drive jeep with chains will have a very difficult time, and it will damage the road with deep ruts as it tries to negotiate a wet road. These ruts will be as hard as rock when the clay dries. I found the Cottonwood Canyon road to be remarkably smooth, and it could easily be driven in a passenger car. However, according to the BLM staff, the road is not always in the good shape that I encountered.

Desert "Highway" of Clay.  Canon 1DMkIV, Canon 70-200mm f/4 IS.

Desert “Highway” of Clay. Canon 1DMkIV, Canon 70-200mm f/4 IS lens.

A second note of caution relates more to photography, and that is the disappointing fact that two sets of power lines run the length of the Cottonwood Canyon road. Sometimes it is a challenge to photograph a great composition while trying to omit the power lines. I was successful most of the time, but a couple of photographs simply could not avoid these lines, and some tedious processing was required to remove them. In other cases, the lines were sufficiently minor that I just left them in the photo.

Intrusive Power Lines.  Hasselblad H4D-40, Hasselblad 210mm f/4 lens.

Intrusive Power Lines. Hasselblad H4D-40, Hasselblad 210mm f/4 lens.

I spent three nights camped at the Box of the Paria in the southern portion of Cottonwood Canyon. Evidently the side road to the Box allowed 4WD vehicles to cross the Paria River and on to the Old Paria (Pahreah) Town Site. This informal route is now closed, so the road to the Box of the Paria is a secluded dead-end a couple of hundred yards off the main Cottonwood Canyon road; it makes for a good campsite. I didn’t hike to the old town site, but I would certainly try to do so on my next visit.

The main attraction in this area has to be Yellow Rock, an immense area of colorful slickrock at the top of a steep climb. This area is so unique that I’m going to post a separate blog devoted just to this incredible area.

The geological activity has produced some remarkable rock formations and a formidable wall to the west of the road for any hiker. For photographers like me with limited hiking abilities (in my case it’s due to artificial hip joints), the many views that can be photographed from the road is welcomed.

Rugged Wall #1.  Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 Mk II lens.

Rock Wall #1. Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 II lens.

Rock Wall #2.  Canon 1DMkIV, Canon 70-200mm f/4 IS lens.

Rock Wall #2. Canon 1DMkIV, Canon 70-200mm f/4 IS lens.

Rock Wall #3.  Canon 1DMkIV, Canon 70-200mm f/4 IS lens.

Rock Wall #3. Canon 1DMkIV, Canon 70-200mm f/4 IS lens.

In addition to the colorful and extremely rugged wall that parallels the road for much of its distance, especially in the southern portion, individual rock formations can be found on both sides of the road.

Pointed Peak.  Canon 1DMkIV, Canon 70-200mm f/4 IS lens.

Pointed Peak. Canon 1DMkIV, Canon 70-200mm f/4 IS lens.

Sandstone Spires.  Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 II.

Sandstone Spires. Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 II.

Rock Formation and Cirrus Clouds.  Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 II lens.

Rock Formation and Cirrus Clouds. Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 II lens.

Red Rocks and Cirrus Clouds.  Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 II lens.

Red Rocks and Cirrus Clouds. Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 II lens.

Rock Fins.  Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 II lens.

Rock Fins. Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 II lens.

Occasionally the clay formations take over and dominate the landscape.

Clay Hill.  Canon 1DMkIV, Canon 70-200mm f/4 IS lens.

Clay Hill. Canon 1DMkIV, Canon 70-200mm f/4 IS lens.

One especially striking combination of rocks and clay stood out along the road. A large, smooth, purple clay hill contrasted dramatically from the sharp, rugged rocks around it. The clay hill looked like a huge, purple balloon among the rocks:

Purple Clay Hill Amid Rocks.  Canon 1DMkIV, Canon 70-200mm f/4 IS lens.

Purple Clay Hill Amid Rocks. Canon 1DMkIV, Canon 70-200mm f/4 IS lens.

Purple Clay (lower left) in Rocky Context.  Canon 1DMkIV, Canon 70-200mm f/4 IS lens.

Purple Clay (lower left) in Rocky Context. Canon 1DMkIV, Canon 70-200mm f/4 IS lens.

Further to the north, the road passes along a series of serrated ridges. From a higher viewpoint to the north, the ridges look like the fins on the spines of a Stegosaurus dinosaur. These are formed as a result of earth movement along the fault line, but I want to know more detail about how these come to appear like this:

"Stegosaurus" Hills.  Canon 1DMkIV, Canon 300mm f/2.8 IS lens.

“Stegosaurus” Hills. Canon 1DMkIV, Canon 300mm f/2.8 IS lens.

"Stegosaurus" Hills, a Wider View.  Canon 1DMkIV, Canon 70-200mm f/4 IS lens.

“Stegosaurus” Hills, a Wider View. Canon 1DMkIV, Canon 70-200mm f/4 IS lens.

Close-up View, Looking North.  Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 II lens.

Close-up View, Looking North. Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 II lens.

Still further to the north, the Cottonwood Canyon road passes through an area of rocks of fantastic colors and shapes. Appropriately, the area is called Candyland.

Candyland #1.  Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 II lens.

Candyland #1. Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 II lens.

Candyland #2.  Hasselblad H4D-40, Hasselblad 100mm f/2.2 lens.

Candyland #2. Hasselblad H4D-40, Hasselblad 100mm f/2.2 lens.

Toward the norther end of Cottonwood Canyon is Grosvenor Arch. The area has been developed somewhat with a restroom and short, paved trail from the parking area to the base of the arch. I camped here one night in a wide spot in the road very near the parking area. I was somewhat surprised at the number of people who arrived to view the arch. They probably came from Kodachrome Basin State Park and the towns of Henrieville and Cannonville, all of which are not too far distant to the north.

Grosvenor Arch #1 (p.m.).  Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 17mm TS-E f/4 lens.

Grosvenor Arch #1 (p.m.). Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 17mm TS-E f/4 lens.

Grosvenor Arch #2 (a.m.).  Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 lens.

Grosvenor Arch #2 (a.m.). Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 II lens.

Grosvenor Arch #3 (a.m.).  Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 lens.

Grosvenor Arch #3 (a.m.). Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 II lens.

While I spent five days in the area, two of those days were devoted to Yellow Rock, so I photographed for only three days along the length of the road. There is so much more to see and explore that a return visit is in order.

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