It’s the kind of place National Geographic photographers drool over. Amazing shots jump out everywhere just waiting to be captured on camera. From Thor’s Hammer to the Tower Bridge to row after row of stoic rock statues, Bryce Canyon National Park makes a photographer’s dreams come true.
Dad had seen those Nat Geo photos taken by the drooling photographers. He’d studied them and knew he needed to get to the park a.s.a.p. And, so, with his Toyota Prius loaded to the gills with camping and camera gear, he and my mother hightailed it to southwestern Utah.
Wandering with a Mission
Dad set off in exploring mode since this was his first visit to the park. Like Indiana Jones searching for an ancient treasure, Dad meandered through several trails looking for stellar photographs. He saw plenty of possibilities. Some of the shots needed better light, but some were just right.
Dad was rewarded right off the bat with a nice, snappy photo of Thor’s Hammer. It is, as he likes to say, a grab shot. He took the photo right on the trail without any planning. He just whipped out the 100mm-400mm lens and shot. The natural light created amazing separation between the foreground and background. It was perfect.
As he continued down into the canyon he saw row after row of hoodoos, tall and strangely shaped pillars of stone left standing after some serious erosion. As the light changed from early morning to mid-day the rocks morphed from glowing orange creamsicles to burnt umber and pure white pillars.
After descending about 550 feet into the canyon, Dad reached Wall Street. He passed two narrow rock bridges and towering slot canyons that look like big city skyscrapers. The shade can be pretty deep in these smaller canyons, yet growing right in the midst of these monolithic walls were monstrously tall Douglas firs. The trees made an interesting contrast with the colorful canyon walls.
Of course once he hiked down into the canyon, Dad had to hike back up. But he agreed the views were worth all of that effort. He did, however, need a nap afterward. You might too. Just saying.
Dad only had one shot on his Bryce must-photograph list–The Tower Bridge. If you use your imagination, the rock formation really does look a lot like London’s Tower Bridge. Getting down to Bryce’s bridge required a three-mile hike on a trail that descended 802 feet into the canyon and then another quarter of a mile spur trail that took him to the formation.
Along the way Dad found a few other photographs he likes to call “Alien Rocks”. They really do look like something out of “Star Trek”. It’s all part of Bryce’s charm.
Eventually Dad had the main prize in sight. But getting to the Tower Bridge was just part of the problem.
“The sun didn’t really shine on it like you wanted it to,” Dad said. “There were a lot of trees in the way too. So I had to do some reconstructive surgery on it to make it feel good.”
Since neither a sunrise nor sunset shot was going to work, Dad went to Plan B. He envisioned the formation illuminated by a giant moon. He took a shot of the bridge and then back at his studio he used Photoshop to cut out the unwanted trees. He also added the moon, another image from Bryce.
As it turns out, Dad had captured the moon on the second night of his Bryce adventure from the parking lot at Fairyland Point. He had rented a 600mm lens just for this moon picture. Dad bracketed the exposure widely ensuring he captured the most detail possible.
“I made sure I shot all of the parts I needed,” Dad said. “Then I created the full image in Photoshop. I wasn’t going to come out of the trip without a good photo of the bridge.”
Dad succeeded with Plan B. You can see the finished bridge photo at the top of this blog.
While he had one arranged shot in the can, Dad would spend the remaining time exploring the park, open to anything else that jumped out at him.
So Little Time and So Many Chipmunks
After spending a few mornings studying the sun at several locations, Dad captured a wide-angle sunrise shot of the hoodoos. This wasn’t just one or two rocks, but row after row of incomparable stone creations. If you look closely you can imagine human and animal figures frozen in the rocks. When the early morning light hit the pillars, they magically exploded with warm, glowing colors.
Dad had several other ideas for photos, but he was running out of time. Then he ran into a snafu. He and Mom stopped to get ice cream at the general store. While they were in the store, a band of cunning chipmunks stole the car keys, according to Dad. The little furry rodents were cavorting in the parking lot near the car when our duo went inside. They were mysteriously absent when Dad and Mom returned. Luckily for him, Mom had an extra pair of keys to get them home. This just proves Mom really is the power behind the camera.
We came up with several tips for shooting at Bryce based on Dad’s experiences. It’s a marvelous place to shoot, so plan as long a trip as you can. Here are a few other things to keep in mind.
- It’s basic but very true at Bryce. Arrive early and stay late. Much of Bryce looks amazing in the early morning light. There are several spots that look great at sunset, but even more pictures can be found just after the sunsets when the colors in the sky soften to muted pastels.
- Take a variety of lenses. You might think most of Bryce would be shot with wide-angle lenses. But there are also many long lens opportunities like Dad’s photograph of Thor’s Hammer.
- Don’t forget the tripod and cable release for those long exposure shots at twilight or during a storm. Also, be ready for the unexpected. Dad lucked out with his photo “Last Light”. He’d been watching the clouds and sun over the landscape while he was supposed to be listening to a ranger’s presentation. Just before the sun hit the plateau Dad managed to get his camera on the tripod. He fired off a few shots and then the light disappeared.
- Make sure you have a polarizing filter as well as neutral density filter. You’ll be able to capture so many more pictures by controlling the light.
- You might want to hire a guide if you have limited time at the park. The park is a photographer’s Candy Land, but you have to know where to go. A local guide can quickly get you where you need to be to get the shot.
If You Go
We discovered a few basic things about the park you should know before you go.
- The rocks at Bryce lure people in with dazzling color, magical shapes and ancient histories. Yep, you’ll see lots of rocks and trees at Bryce. And you’ll be happy you did. But you won’t be alone. Those rocks and trees draw over a million visitors a year.
That means the park can be a crowded place. You are allowed to drive your own vehicle, but there may not be any free parking spaces, especially during the holidays and summer time. The Park Service does run a shuttle service during the busy months. Your $25 entrance fee gives you free, unlimited use of the shuttle.
- For convenience it’s best to stay in the park at one of the campsites or the Bryce Canyon Lodge. There are no RV hook ups in the park. By staying in a campsite or at the Lodge, you’ll easily reach your sunrise photo locations with time to spare.
- Pets are only allowed in campgrounds, parking lots, paved trails or viewpoints. In other words, leave them at home. They won’t have as much fun as you will at Bryce.
- Cell phone coverage is spotty in the park. Plan accordingly.
- Take a lot of water and snacks if you go out hiking. Some of the trails are strenuous and hot. Make sure you’re fit enough to handle the longer trails. Sturdy shoes, a hat and a hiking buddy are always a good idea too.
- Be prepared for weather extremes. Daytime temperatures may be warm, but the nights are cool, even in the summer. Also watch out for lightening. You can find it year round in the park, but it’s especially prevalent during summer storms.
- The highest point in the park is 9,115 feet. That altitude can cause headaches, nausea and dizziness if you’re not used to it. Give your body time to adjust and use good judgment before tackling the most difficult hiking trails.
With a little planning you too can find those stunning pictures hidden in Bryce Canyon National Park. You might even find yourself drooling a bit. That’s OK. We all do the first time we see the park. Just take a hanky, wipe off the drool and start shooting.