In the spring of 2013 I spent four months in my camper traveling and photographing in Utah, Arizona, Wyoming, and Montana. While in Utah, I was following the guidebook by Laurent Martres titled “Photographing the Southwest,” specifically volume 1 of the three-volume series and covering southern Utah. One chapter in Martres’ book describes the Cockscomb, a 50-mile long fault in the Grand Staircase National Monument. He describes it as one of the most remarkable geologic formations of the Colorado Plateau, and that alone had me spending about a week there during the last half of May.
Yellow Rock is an area about 10-15 acres in size (this is a very rough estimate based on my younger days of fighting forest fires and having to estimate the size of a burn) of fabulous slickrock at the top of a small mountain that varies in beautiful colors and textures. Somehow someone found a way to make a trail up the very rugged upheaval slope originating from the geologic fault. The trail is narrow, steep, full of short switchbacks and loose rocks, but it is not a long trail. While Martres describes it as a 20-minute hike, I needed about 45 minutes — I’m walking on artificial hips, and they just don’t seem to move as fast.
I followed Cottonwood Road (LINK) north from US 89 beginning about two miles east of the Paria Contact Station. To reach Yellow Rock, I parked in a wide open area where the Brigham Plains Road meets the Cottonwood Canyon Road. Directly across the road is Hackberry Canyon. The trail to Yellow Rock is in the next canyon to the south, only about 300 meters away. After crossing Cottonwood Canyon Road, following some cow trails through the vegetation, and crossing the dry Paria River (remember, I was there in late May, and there were some muddy spots), a fairly well-defined trail begins the ascent. The trail is well-defined simply because there is no other way up this exceptionally rugged landscape. That means there is no other way down as well, something I would soon discover.
The trail soon reaches a saddle that turns south. After a few more minutes of climbing, the trail passes the last of the big rock outcrops, and this should be used as a landmark for finding the trail again on the way back. While the trail continues, it becomes more faint and several alternate routes head off to different parts of Yellow Rock. At this point small rock cairns become more important, especially for finding the way back.
Yellow Rock from this initial vantage point is stunning; never have I seen such a large area of colorful and sculpted slickrock. The photograph above shows one of the initial views. NOTE: all photographs in this article were done with a Canon 1DsMkIII camera body.
The sandstone has a variety of “surface finishes,” from shallow to moderate grooves, cobblestone blocks of varying sizes, some rock outcrops, and just a few areas of smooth rock. Colors include yellow (no surprise there) to red, orange, brown, and ivory.
On the first day I visited Yellow Rock, a storm was coming in from the west. This was an opportunity to include some skies with more interest than uniform blue, but I also found that uniform gray was equally challenging. I looked for areas in the sky that had variation; they also did not seem as threatening regarding rain or lightning. One does not want to be standing as the tallest point around when lightning appears imminent.
During this hike, there were also two adults and a child on Yellow Rock, and I took one photograph to try to show the relative scale of the surface area and textures.
While the other hikers proceeded to the top, I became increasingly worried about the changing weather, and so I decided to head down. I walked back to where I first stepped onto the slickrock, and from there I looked for my landmark rock outcrop. Unfortunately, from this angle everything had changed, and I couldn’t tell which of three ridges in front of me was the proper way down. I headed down in the direction I thought I had come up, but after a short distance I couldn’t find any rock cairns. Knowing that the trail was absolutely the only safe way down, I walked across the saddle to the next ridge to the north, which I found is much easier said/written than actually done because of the soft soil, cactus patches, and sandstone ledges that seemed to pop up everywhere. Having reached the second ridge, again I found no rock cairns that would indicate a route down. However, I did find some footprints which told me one thing: I wasn’t the only person to have gotten “a bit confused” trying to find my way down. Again I traversed another saddle, complimenting myself that at least I had enough sense to head down early, and I finally found some rock cairns that eventually led me to the trail. Where it had taken me about 45 minutes to hike to the top, I spent twice that long getting down. When walking toward the slickrock, it’s important to turn around from time to time to get a good look at the changing perspective; this will help in getting off the mountain.
I went back the next afternoon, a day of blue sky and white clouds. As is typical for most landscapes, Yellow Rock is best photographed with a low angle of light to get some shadows on the surface texture. Most of the slickrock is on the east side, but it curves around to include substantial areas on both the north and south sides. After hiking to the very top (“because it was there”), I learned there is relatively little slickrock on the west side. Therefore, It may be best to begin afternoon shooting on the north side, and then explore across the east side toward the south as the afternoon progresses. Martres suggests that the best light might be close to sunset, and he includes a photo with shadows and highlights across the small grooves to make his point. However, unless I were extremely familiar with the area, and/or had a GPS to help guide me to the trail at the top, and had a fellow hiker along, I think it would be foolish to tackle this area with a flashlight after sunset. There are many loose rocks on a narrow and twisting trail down; it’s just not a good trail to hike in the dark.
How does one capture a sense of this vast, open area with a camera? I chose to shoot close to the ground in most areas to concentrate on the rock textures, and over long distances this is bound to create depth-of-field problems in keeping everything in relatively sharp focus. Therefore, I used focus stacking techniques extensively for the first time, even with a 17mm lens, but especially with the longer focal length lenses.
I spent an afternoon and early evening happily exploring slickrock, looking for interesting compositions of surface texture and colors, hopefully complemented by some good sky. The following are my attempt to capture the spirit and beauty of this area.