Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Road Trip - The Western Slope

Although I've lived in Colorado for over 20 years now, I have spent very little time on the Western slope of the Rockies. So when my friend (and fellow Pentaxian) Ed called with an idea for a quick weekend road trip to Arches National Park and Colorado National Monument, I was game.

On the surface, it seemed like a questionable proposition. After getting in late Friday night after a gig, I'd be getting up early (for me) on Saturday morning, and we'd spend most of the day driving west to Moab, Utah. We'd have only about 4-5 hours of daylight to explore and shoot in Arches. Then we'd be driving back east to Grand Junction, where we'd spend the night and get up the next morning for only another 4-5 hours at Colorado National Monument (and a brief side trip to the Palisade wine country) before we'd need to head back to Denver, where I had a gig that evening. But Ed had already rented the car and was planning on doing the driving anyhow; all I had to do was come along. So I did!

I've driven west as far as Grand Junction a few times before, and there is beautiful country along the way (Glenwood Canyon in particular), but I had never explored the Grand Junction area itself, or driven any further west. The Utah state line is only a few miles from Grand Junction, and Arches only an hour or so from there. The terrain rapidly appears to get less interesting to me after passing through Glenwood, once the novelty of the mesas wears off. Crossing into Utah, I almost wondered if Arches could possibly be as spectacular as what we had already passed through to get there. But of course, its reputation suggested it would be.

Needless to say, I was not disappointed. Within a few miles of the entrance to Arches, things suddenly did get a lot more interesting. Here is a shot from the first stop we made:

Because time was so limited, we explored mostly by car. Arches is very conducive to this, as many of the major formations are close to parking areas, with little or no hiking required to see them. In fact, the view from the car is just as amazing, which is surely what these folks were thinking:

Sometimes, what is most interesting about a place is not the majestic panoramas, but the small details:

In some areas, there isn't that much to look at nearby, but what there is makes you look that much harder, as Ed demonstrates:

One of the more famous rock formations in Arches is the Balanced Rock. It's an impressive structure, although from some angles it looks more impossibly situated than others. Some viewpoints also make the scale of the thing more clear. And from any given position, the light is more dramatic at some times of day than others. Since we didn't have the luxury of planning our visit there to coincide with the optimum time of day for the optimum viewing angle, we settled for making the shots we could, and I do rather like this one:

Scale is everything in trying to photograph scenes like this. Without a person in the shot, it can be difficult to appreciate just how big the formation is, but one also has a tendency to want to see "pure" landscapes. And with limited time and no familiarity with these particular formations and limited experience with this type of photography in general, it was very difficult to capture images that reflect the true feeling of the place. That is especially true when viewing pictures on a small computer screen. I like shots like this one because the people in it are not distracting to the shot, but once you see them, they do help give a sense of scale:

We did time our sojourn through the park so that we would be be near the most famous landmark, Delicate Arch, around sundown. The trial to take you right to the foot of the arch was far too long given the limited time we had, so we instead chose a vantage point from which you can see the arch across a canyon, around half a mile away. Luckily, I had my 500mm mirror lens with me to bring it closer:

After having dinner in Moab and spending the night back in Grand Junction, doubt again surfaced: could Colorado National Monument - located just minuted from town - possibly hold a candle to Arches? While I at least had some idea of what Arches would offer, I really had no clue with Colorado National Monument; it was only a name to me. But as before, there turned out to be no cause for concern. The terrain here is very different from Arches, but no less amazing. I've never been to the Grand Canyon, and most canyons in Colorado are typically experienced from the bottom looking up. Colorado National Monument is home to a system of canyons - Ute, Red, Monument, Echo, and several others - and the road through the park travels along the rim of most of these.

Shortly after the gates to the park, one is greeted with a sense of leaving one world and entering a different one:

The first canyons one sees are relatively small ones. I was completely unprepared for the size of the large canyons one encounters soon enough:

Once again, capturing a sense of scale is difficult. Here's one only partially successful attempt, sitting on the rim with my feet dangling over the precipice, with an absolutely enormous drop below that doesn't quite look as dramatic as it felt:

Some of the rock formations here look almost like ruins from something man-made, the the Coliseum:

On the way home, we stopped briefly in Palisade to take a few quick shots of the vineyards:

I hope to be able to visit the Western slope again soon and spend a bit more time!