Moonlight as Daylight

Whenever we’re out in the middle of nowhere land, there’s one thing we always look for at night – stars!  Being in remote places like that, there’s little – if any – light pollution from cities or towns and the night skies are magnificent.  On a clear night you can see the Milky Way as a bright band across the entire sky, at least when you’re not distracted by the millions of other brilliant stars all around!

There’s only a couple of things that can foil this nighttime treat.  Weather – clouds, rain, general “icky” conditions – forget it.  You’re not seeing anything.  The more sneaky villain is the moon if it’s up all night.  Don’t get me wrong – it’s still pretty and you can see many more stars than you typically can in an urban or suburban area on a clear night.  The moon just drowns out the twinkles a little by its sheer brightness in the sky.  For this trip, the weather generally cooperated.  The moon… not so much.

The timing of our trip to Goblin Valley fell in between the extremes of the moon phases – smack on a quarter moon that was coming up around 9 or 10pm each night with clear skies and setting mid-morning.  It muted the skies a tad, but we still marveled at the universe blanketing us each night and I wanted to capture it in a picture somehow.  Just how?

I played with star trail shots a little almost 10 years ago during our trip to Chaco Canyon NP in New Mexico (very, very much in the middle of nowhere!).  I was pleased with the shots I got, though we quickly realized the true challenge of the photography process was staying awake late at night waiting for the long exposures to finish after a long day of hiking in the heat.  Staying awake at Goblin Valley wasn’t going to be as much of a problem, but with the moonrise timing, straight-up star trail shots weren’t going to work.  Just too much light.

That’s when it hit me – why not use the moonlight as my light source and see what the landscape looks like on a long-ish exposure?  The next morning I happened to wake up well before daybreak, so I decided to give it a go right outside of our campsite using a huge bluff of rock right behind us as the focal point.

It took a few shots to dial in how long the exposure should be, but I quickly figured it out.  That’s when I bagged a shot that looked awesome and different on the camera’s display that I almost did cartwheels right then and there!  (Naturally, when I got home & saw the pictures on the big screen, I saw how much camera shake was in the image because of the wind, but I salvaged it – thank you post-processing tools!)

Swooping Stars at Sunrise

Knowing the sun was closer to rising than I liked, time was short and I got back into it and clicked off a few more shots.  When you’re doing a series of pictures in low light like this in close succession, you really see how quickly lighting conditions change.  The sun rises surprisingly fast and the lighting changes nearly imperceptible to your eye have a huge effect on exposure times.

From the Valley to the Stars

While the shots looked fantastic on my camera in the field (despite the aforementioned shake issue), what I didn’t realize until I got home was I managed to create shots with mini-star trails in them!  Even better was that the horizontal shot above happened to be facing the north, so I got the North Star in the shot meaning the trails – given enough exposure time – create circles.  Woo hoo!

Eventually it got a touch too bright to continue with the long exposure moonlight shots.  But before I put the camera & tripod away, I swung myself around to face east and caught the early morning color on the horizon as day was breaking, complete with Molly’s Castle in silhouette.

Dawning

Jazzed about the outcomes of this little experiment, I convinced my husband to get up with me even earlier on our last morning in camp so I could try some of these shots among the goblins.  Being the wonderful husband that he is, he agreed and off we went.  That’s when the moon teamed up with the weather to foil our adventure.

Patchy, thin clouds rolled in over night.  Some stars were still visible and the moonlight was filtered through the thin clouds or peeked out when there was a hole in the shroud above.  Oh, and the wind was back too (though not as bad as the day before, thankfully).  Still, we were up, so may as well give it a go and see what happens.

I wasn’t quite as excited about these shots in the field as I was the day before, but the shots I came home with looked otherworldly!  The winds turned patchy cloud cover into streaks of silky white across the sky and the goblin-filled landscape looked like something you might find on a well-eroded area of the Martian landscape in the middle of the day.  Funky to say the least!

Otherworldly

Early Morning Moonlight

Although attempt #2 at using moonlight as daylight wasn’t as successful as my initial outing, I learned a lot about shooting in conditions like this and I already have ideas for new things to try next time I have the opportunity.  The question is – when will that opportunity arrive?  Maybe at Great Sand Dunes in 2018?  Hmmm…

– JC

Happy Surprises in Goblin Valley

For our trip to Utah, we used Goblin Valley State Park as our base camp for our adventures.  For “just” a state park, it’s pretty cool.  In fact, we loved this park and its surroundings so much we wished we had more time to spend in the state park itself!

This park is truly in the middle of nowhere (just how we like our campgrounds & hiking!) – about 2 hours from Moab.  The scenery in the park and all around was simply spectacular.  The landscape was certainly what we expect to see when we’re in eastern Utah, but in some ways it was even more interesting since it’s near the San Rafael Swell.  Tons of colors in the land and curves and shapes and shadows all around.  Really a delight.

A Swell Swell View

After our adventures in Little Wild Horse Canyon that same morning, we dried out enough to go exploring in the afternoon and see what this goblins thing was all about.  What better place to check things out than the aptly named Observation Point?

We pulled into the trailhead and, oh wow… there be goblins!

The Goblins

The little rock formations were all over the canyon floor as far as you could see in so many directions.  They were so funky and mesmerizing.  They reminded me a lot of the drip sand castles we would make as kids at the beach with really watery mud.  Hikers are allowed to wander through the goblins to their hearts’ content, so I was disappointed we didn’t have more days in our schedule to play around down there with the camera.  Maybe next time…

Our plan for the afternoon was an easy hike out to Goblin’s Lair.  Even though we were leaving the lil’ goblins behind, there was still plenty to see along the way.  Simply stunning country all around and a gorgeous day t’boot…

A Tower of Goblins

The terrain along the hike was pretty gentle.  A little steep getting into the valley, then it flattened out for most of the way making for an easy walk to Goblin’s Lair.  Good thing too because with my boots still soaked from the pools in Little Wild Horse Canyon, I was hiking in my barely-any-tread-left Teva sandals and socks!  (Super stylish, I know.)

The terrain changed swiftly when we reached the lair.  We had to climb some really steep rocks & boulders.  Tricky enough when you’re wearing boots with good tread while carrying a big camera, even more so when you’re in your reserve campsite-only sandals.

I did trek up to the mouth of the lair – slowly – and I made it with both myself and the camera in one piece.  We took a peek inside the Lair itself and found that you could climb down into this big, dark cavern that only had a small shaft of light coming in from a hole in the rock above.  It looked awesome, but I didn’t want to chance it with my iffy footing and equipment.  My husband though?  He climbed down in there.

He said it was awesome & a little spooky.  It was easy to see why the lore of this site revolves around it being the origin of the goblins in the valley.  Not too much see in the way of pictures though since it was so dark in the cave, but he said it was really cool to experience.  (Dammit!  Next time I’ll keep my boots dry!)

So what did I do while I was waiting for my husband to finish exploring in the dark other than worry about him getting in and out of there safely?  Take pictures, of course!  With the time of day and the angle of the sun, the lighting was fairly extreme and tough to balance, but I did like one shot I came away with there from just outside of the Lair.  It seemed fitting for the entrance to a “lair”…

Into the Lair

Heading out to Goblin’s Lair was a nice end to a fantastic day in the valley.  Even though I missed the main attraction on this particular hike, we still got treated to some more stupendous views on the way back to the trailhead.

Out to Molly's Castle

Based on this first full day in the park alone, it’s safe to say Goblin Valley is somewhere we’ll wind up again in the future.  Lots of good stuff yet to be explored & photographed, and our stay here is only halfway over!  Horseshoe Canyon is yet to come…

– JC

Into Little Wild Horse Canyon

I love slot canyons.  Their depth, their towering wall heights, how skinny things get, the way the light plays around and bounces off the walls.  There’s a ton to love as a photographer.  Unfortunately, those exact same characteristics make them really tricky to photograph to truly capture their beauty.

Little Wild Horse Canyon in Goblin Valley State Park in Utah fit that pattern precisely.  Maybe not quite at the start of our trek, but certainly as we got closer to the end.  It was a fabulous progression.

Our morning hike started off simply enough.  Meandering down a dry creek bed, with obvious signs of where the water runs when it does arrive since there were some big cottonwoods changing into their fall colors to greet us.  (I also got some magical morning sunlight on the bark of one of the trees.)

It rained in the area about 2 weeks prior to our arrival, but Utah being Utah, we didn’t think much of it since we were heading to the desert.  It’d certainly be dry by now, maybe an occasional tiny puddle to splash through.  As we got to the mouth of the canyon, we saw that wasn’t the case.  Thankfully my husband – hiking research guy that he is – had read there was another way around this “puddle” so we stayed dry (for now).

Entry Dip

Once we trekked our way around that “welcoming pool”, things started to look more like normal canyon hiking.  Interesting rock walls, plants growing in unusual spots, rock falls, etc.  A bit of a tricky start, but really pretty once we climbed around it all.

Not long after this point, things started getting narrow.  And sandy.  The canyon floor quickly and steadily became beach-like sand, making walking just a touch harder than normal.  Certainly not difficult enough to stop us though.

Twisting Narrows

As the canyon continued to narrow, we started running into a few more puddles.  Some were easy enough to splash through as they barely got over the toes of our boots.  Others got over our ankles, and a couple got up to our knees.  We kept chugging along because the scenery was so very worth it, and really – what’s a little more dampness when you’re already wet!?

I continued shooting whatever I could.  The light began dancing on the canyon walls as the sun got higher in the sky, creating fascinating highlights & shadow patterns.  There was just so much I wanted to capture, but I tempered that urge a little so I wasn’t slowing us down too much or putting myself in the way of other hikers.  Considering the shooting pace was a little more rushed than I would’ve liked, I came home with a lot of goodies!  (And yes, though the red walls were gorgeous in their natural color, I found during post processing that the black & whites let me play around more with the shadows & textures in the rocks.)

It was a pretty easy walk through the canyon, so long as we could twist ourselves and our packs through the narrowest parts.  We even ran into some stuff to climb over and through to keep it interesting.

Just as things were starting to get interesting though…

Illusion

…we ran into the puddle that shall not let us pass.  (I’ve been reading Michael Palin’s published diaries from the early days of Monty Python, thus the loosely quoted Holy Grail reference.)

We started through a series of puddles that were ankle-deep, then shin deep, then knee-deep, then mid-thigh deep, then… um, really deep.  By measure of my husband’s hiking stick, the next puddle was going to come up to at least above our waists, if not chest-high.  Considering we were surprised to see any lingering remnants of moisture at all on this hike, we weren’t prepared to get quite that wet.  Naturally, for me, I had the added bonus of visions of slipping & plunging to neck-deep with my camera attached to me flash before my eyes.  (When you have a clumsy gene, these visions flash in your mind all the time!)

When we made the call to turn around and head back, we estimated we were probably 2/3 of the way into the canyon.  We certainly saw a lot of gorgeous sights.  If only a fellow returning hiker hadn’t passed us and said that the most beautiful part of the canyon lied ahead of that massively deep puddle, we wouldn’t have known what we were missing!  Disappointing, yes.  But that’s ok – it just gives us one more reason to go back!

On our way back to the trailhead, I was quickly reminded of the benefits of out-and-back hiking in a canyon like this.  So long as you’re paying attention to how the light is moving on your way in, you can save yourself some time and skip the shot the first time you see it if it’s in a ton of shadows and plan to catch the sight in better light on the way out.  (My husband very much appreciates that I try to do that – one less thing slowing him down at the start of a hiking day!)

Even though our bottom halves were utterly soaked through, we still saw some grand sights on the way out.

An unexpectedly wet day in Little Wild Horse Canyon for us, but we really enjoyed it and can’t wait to go back to explore it some more!

 

– JC