Photography locations - Utah

Yellow Rock on Cottonwood Road, Utah

09.15.13 | 1 Comment

Yellow Rock, Utah

Yellow Rock, Utah. Canon 70-200mm f/4 IS lens.

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.

Slickrock Colors and Patterns, a closer view.  Canon 1DsIII, Canon 70-200 f/4 IS lens.

Slickrock Colors and Patterns, a closer view. Canon 70-200 f/4 IS lens.

Slickrock, closer still.  Note the cobblestone texture in the foreground and terraces in the background.  Canon 1DsIII, Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 II lens.

Slickrock, closer still. Note the cobblestone texture in the foreground and terraces in the background. Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 II lens.

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.

Slickrock Under Storm Clouds.  Canon 1DsIII, Canon 17mm TS-E f/4 lens.

Slickrock Under Storm Clouds. Canon 17mm TS-E f/4 lens.

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.

Scale of the Patterns.  Canon 1DsIII, Canon 70-200mm f/4 IS lens.

Scale of the Patterns. Canon 70-200mm f/4 IS lens.

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.

Slickrock Terraces #1.  Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 II lens.

Slickrock Terraces. Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 II lens.

Cobblestone Patterns.  Pieces of wood were sometimes found, obviously brought by other photographers to make the composition more interesting.  This was located right at the boundary of the slickrock, so it might have occurred naturally.  Canon 70-200mm f/4 IS lens.

Cobblestone Patterns with Wood. Pieces of wood were sometimes found, obviously brought by other photographers to make the composition more interesting. This was located right at the boundary of the slickrock, so it might have occurred naturally. Canon 70-200mm f/4 IS lens.

Cobblestone Patterns.  Canon 17mm TS-E f/4 lens.

Cobblestone Patterns. Canon 17mm TS-E f/4 lens.

Yellow and Red Grooves in Slickrock.  Canon 17mm TS-E f/4 lens.

Yellow and Red Grooves in Slickrock. Canon 17mm TS-E f/4 lens.

Ephemeral Water.  Canon 17mm TS-E f/4 lens.

Ephemeral Water. Canon 17mm TS-E f/4 lens.

Slickrock and Cloud.  This heavily layered area on the east side was a favorite spot.  Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 II lens.

Slickrock and Cloud. This heavily layered area on the east side was a favorite spot. Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 II lens.

Slickrock Orphans.  Canon 17mm TS-E lens.

Slickrock Orphans. Canon 17mm TS-E lens.

Stone Fish on a Sea of Stone.  Note how little the clouds have changed from the last shot; one doesn't have to walk very far to find compositions.  Canon 17mm f/4 TS-E lens.

Stone Fish on a Sea of Stone. Note how little the clouds have changed from the previous shot; one doesn’t have to walk very far to find compositions. Canon 17mm f/4 TS-E lens.

Slickrock Ledges on a Stormy Afternoon.  Canon 17mm TS-E f/4 lens.

Slickrock Ledges on a Stormy Afternoon. Canon 17mm TS-E f/4 lens.

Inhospitality.  Canon 17mm TS-E f/4 lens.

Inhospitality. Canon 17mm TS-E f/4 lens.

Red Runs Through It.  Canon 17mm TS-E f/4 lens.

Red Runs Through It. Canon 17mm TS-E f/4 lens.

Cobblestone, Looking SE Across the Paria River.  Canon 17mm TS-E lens.

Cobblestone, Looking SE Across the Paria River. Canon 17mm TS-E lens.

Sandstone Hills NNE from Yellow Rock.  Canon 70-200mm f/4 IS lens.

Sandstone Hills NNE from Yellow Rock. Canon 70-200mm f/4 IS lens.

Multi-Colored Slickrock.  Canon 17mm TS-E f/4 lens.

Multi-Colored Slickrock. Canon 17mm TS-E f/4 lens.

Yellow Grooves in Slickrock.  Canon 17mm TS-E f/4 lens.

Yellow Grooves in Slickrock. Canon 17mm TS-E f/4 lens.

Orange and Ivory Grooves in Slickrock.  Canon 17mm TS-E f/4 lens.

Orange and Ivory Grooves in Slickrock. Canon 17mm TS-E f/4 lens.

Yellow Slickrock with Tinges of Red.  Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 II lens.

Yellow Slickrock with Tinges of Red. Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 II lens.

Slickrock Amoeba Trying to Move Uphill.  Canon 17mm TS-E f/4 lens.

Slickrock Amoeba Trying to Move Uphill. Canon 17mm TS-E f/4 lens.

Contrasting Patterns and Colors of Slickrock.  Canon 17mm TS-E f/4 lens.

Contrasting Patterns and Colors of Slickrock. Canon 17mm TS-E f/4 lens.

Small Remnants of a Small Cascade.  Canon 70-200mm f/4 IS lens.

Small Remnants of a Small Cascade. Canon 70-200mm f/4 IS lens.

Slickrock Waves Moving Against Gravity.  Canon 17mm TS-E f/4 lens.

Slickrock Waves Moving Against Gravity. Canon 17mm TS-E f/4 lens.

Slickrock Ledges Moving With Gravity.  Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 II lens.

Slickrock Ledges Moving With Gravity. Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 II lens.

Multi-Colored and Multi-Patterned Cobblestone.  Canon 70-200mm f/4 IS lens.

Multi-Colored and Multi-Patterned Cobblestone. Canon 70-200mm f/4 IS lens.

Wider View of Previous Photograph.  Looking SE across the Paria River drainage.  Canon 70-200mm f/4 IS lens.

Wider View of Previous Photograph. Looking SE across the Paria River drainage. Canon 70-200mm f/4 IS lens.

Slickrock Being Surveyed by a Raven.  Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 II lens.

Slickrock Being Surveyed by a Raven. Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 II lens.

A Ribbon Runs Through It.  Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 II lens.

A Ribbon Runs Through It. Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 II lens.

An Uncommon Occurrence of Wood and Sand on Slickrock.  Canon 17mm TS-E f/4 lens.

An Uncommon Occurrence of Wood and Sand on Slickrock. Canon 17mm TS-E f/4 lens.

Zen on the Yellow Rock Trail.  An ephemeral cloud and a solid rock share viewfinder space, while a tree has died trying to figure out what it all means.  Canon 70-200mm f/4 IS lens.

Zen on the Yellow Rock Trail. An ephemeral cloud and a solid rock share viewfinder space, while a tree has died trying to figure out what it all means. Canon 70-200mm f/4 IS lens.

1 Comment

  • On 09.17.13 Paul Mongillo wrote these words:

    Great images Steve. Sounds like some great hiking too. Glad the hips are still keeping you going , if not a bit slower. That can be good as well. You probably notice more things at a slower pace. Some of these cry out to be converted to B&W, especially the ones with the single white cloud and blue sky. Black sky’s and white clouds get my artistic juices flowing. Where are you now…or is that classified?

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