Arches - Canyonlands Trip November 2010Day 3 - Windows / Needles DistrictDay 1 - Delicate ArchDay 2 - Corona Arch / Island in the Sky
The final day of this long weekend trip involved an early pre-dawn start to catch sunrise. We left the motel somewhere in the vicinity of 6AM, heading north. We were contemplating catching the sunrise somewhere along the Colorado east of Moab, but at the last minute we decided to shoot back up into Arches and catch it at the Windows. I really wanted to shoot the famous shot of Turret Arch through the North Window. As we were driving up into the park, we could already see a few hints of red in the eastern sky. We knew it was the beginning of a magic morning.
We reached the Windows trail head and a nice band of pink was highlighted in the clouds over the Windows fin. I quickly set up the tripod and did an exposure of a North Window silhouette before booking it up to the North Window itself. I walked through the North Window and spotted the outcrop I needed to be on to get my shot. Upon climbing a few feet down from the window, an NPS sign on the ground said, "This is not a trail, blah blah blah." The brochure I got from the gate had a picture of the specific composition I was going for, so I ignored the sign at went on my way. To get out on the right section of outcrop, it requires a small, easy but mildly exposed move. Holding a fully extended tripod with a dSLR attached makes it more treacherous. I made the move and set up my composition at Turret Arch. By now the sky over the La Sals (partially obscured by a group of fins and spires) was turning a golden yellow. I fired off a few bracketed exposures and then sat back to enjoy the magnificent morning and wait for my light. A young European couple soon appeared in the North Window, but kindly moved when the alpenglow hit. The alpenglow was absolutely stunning, similar to what I witnessed to days before at the Delicate Arch sunset. I got my shots before the glow went away. I am so thankful for that beautiful alpenglow because once the sun crested the horizon, the clouds in the east were too dense to let it pierce through.
I got down from the outcrop and headed down a faint social trail to catch the Windows Primitive Loop downhill to the east. From the trail shot a the obligatory shot of the North and South Windows before heading up the north section of the loop. Nearing the trail head, light started to spray out of the clouds and onto the landscape to the southwest. I went back up the trail a hundred yards or so to take some more shots. I spotted my dad up on an outcrop near Turret Arch, he spotted me too and started heading down. When he got within earshot, I shouted, "I'm gonna head over to Double Arch." He gave the thumbs-up and I booked it that way.
Let me tell you, Double Arch is even better in the early morning light! I found a nice composition in the sandy wash below the trail, moments later a nice glow pierced through the clouds onto Double Arch, I fired off a few exposures then headed back toward the trailhead. It was darn close to 8AM, and with plans to stop by the Canyonlands Needles District on the way home, I was itching to get going.
We stopped at the La Sal Mountains overlook once more to get one last glimpse at Arches National Park, then made the trek back through Moab and south on US 191. I dozed for a while then woke up in time for the turnoff to the Needles. A front was moving in from the Pacific, and an overcast day at the Needles District was imminent. The drive into the Needles is long, but stunningly beautiful with massive cliffs of Wingate Sandstone underscored by a hefty slug of the Chinle Formation. Evidently the climbers appreciate the Wingate Cliffs, as this is an extensive climbing (take notes, Janelle).
At the Needles visitor center, some couple was going crazy about some red stain on the rocks along the Slickrock Foot Trail, asking the rangers what it was. The man kept saying, "The only thing I can think of is Cinnabar," and muttering about his knowledge of geology. The rangers said, "Maybe it's paint." The couple would reply, "It had to have been painted by ancient people!" We showed our parks pass and quickly got away from there.
The Slickrock Foot Trail happened to be our destination as well. We saw the rocks in question, and they definitely had paint on them, and definitely were not from the immediate vicinity. We could not figure out what the fuss was about. It was definitely overcast on the slickrock, and the wind made it cold. It's a nice enough hike, but I could not help by find it rather gloomy. Maybe it's the location too. This place is way out in the middle of an expansive valley, you feel like your in the middle of nowhere. It's too beautiful to be "God forsaken", it feels more like a forgotten sea of slickrock severely isolated from the neighboring cliffs, canyons and landmarks of slightly more astounding beauty. Maybe if the sun was shining I wouldn't have been in such a gothic mood.
Leaving Canyonlands, it was time to head back to Flagstaff. It remained overcast as well passed through the comparatively boring land surrounding Monticello, Blanding and Bluff. We got excited as we approached Comb Ridge and were able to the name flurry of contorted rock layers as we quickly drove down section. We crested the Lime Ridge Anticline and stopped to look for the small syncline separating the Lime Ridge and Raplee Anticlines, and were successful in doing so. Far off in the distance, the monoliths of Monument Valley were visible with brilliant sun rays illuminating the flats in front of them. The drive into Mexican Hat was nice as always, we admired Cedar Mesa, Mexican Hat Rock and the meanders of the San Juan River as it leaves the upwarped strata of the Honaker Trail Formation on Raplee Ridge. We looked with nostalgia at the restaurant at the San Juan Inn in Mexican Hat, right on the small cliff above the San Juan River itself. We made the obligatory stop at the Redlands Overlook just northeast of Monument Valley, and a hole in the storm clouds provided a portal for the bright afternoon sun to turn Brigham's Throne and the Stagecoach into dark silhouettes under an overwhelming cloudscape.
As we neared the turnoff for Monument Valley proper, I had an suspicion that the portal the clouds to the southwest would allow for a spectacular light show on the Mittens. I forked over $10 so we could enter Monument Valley. It had been about a year and a half since my Dad and I had been to the Mittens overlook and Ansel Adams rock, and we barely recognized the scene. Well, the Mittens haven't changed, but where a dirt lot once ran up to Ansel's Rock, the tribe has now paved a parking lot! Taken aback, we quickly parked a walked the 20 yards on the pavement to the overlook. My suspicion was correct, and an amazing light show ensued over the Mittens and Merrick Butte. The wind was gusting like crazy, sand was blowing in our teeth, but we remained there awestruck by the light show unfolding over such a grand scene, snapping off picture after picture after picture. Once sure that the sun was fully eclipsed by the dark clouds in the western sky, we left satisfied. $10 for 20 minutes was never so worthwhile.
We drove through Kayenta and headed through the long valley between Black Mesa and the Organ Rock Monocline. As we approached the turnoff for the Peabody Coal Mine, the sun was piercing through the clouds once more. My dad couldn't see the road too well because of the sun so we made the quick two minute drive up to the top of Black Mesa. A tall rainbow was in view to the northeast, then it faded as the western sky filled with yellow sunbeams and a misty glow was cast over the shrubs in front of us. It was a perfect way to end a perfect Colorado Plateau adventure!
I was exhausted for the rest of the drive, and fell asleep in a wholly uncomfortable position that left a crick in my neck for a couple days after. The pain in my neck was worth it however. Of the marvelous adventures I have had this year, this may have been the best. I came home with a whole bunch of great photos, saw a ton of new and wonderful places, and just had an awesome time doing it.