Roadtrippin’ the American Southwest

After having traveled the world for two years on my own, things that I used to find intimidating or even scary don’t seem to face me anymore.  In the past I would’ve been afraid to go camping or go hiking long distances on my own.  And I definitely would’ve never driven more than a couple of hours on my own, especially in long desolate highways in the desert.  Now I feel different, everything seems attainable, possible, and most of the time, adventurous.  I have been taking a few photography classes through and wanted to go out there and put my new acquired skills to the test.  I’d also been wanting to see more of the American Southwest region and check out some of the most iconic places in this part of the US- Horseshoe Bend, Antelope Canyon, and Monument Valley among others.  One of the important goals for this trip was to backpack into the Grand Canyon to see the Colorado river, something I did almost ten years ago and had the strong urge to do again.
I decided winter time would be best for my road trip since I could avoid the big groups of tourists that these places are known to have during the spring and summer months.  I planned to mostly camp during the trip and I wanted it to be in quiet areas; which could only happen in the winter time.  I also decided to not ask anyone to come along as I wanted to dedicate all of my attention and time to taking photographs and being one with nature.
I kept my expenses as low as possible, camping in as many places as I could, buying groceries and cooking on my small gas stove, making sandwiches, and finding the cheapest fuel along the route.  I drove from Los Angeles to Page, AZ, the town that I used as a base while I visited the Glen Canyon Dam, Lake Powell, Horseshoe Bend, Goosenecks State Park, Mexican Hat Rock, and the Upper Antelope Canyon.  I would end my trip with a visit to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon where I hoped to get a walk-in permit at the backcountry office to descend the canyon and spend the night at the bottom.  This trip happened to take place during the last US government shutdown but fortunately the park didn’t close to visitors and the shutdown came to an end before the day that I needed to get my permit.  The back country office would’ve been closed otherwise so I consider myself lucky.
This map shows my itinerary for the entire 11 days:  Screen Shot 2018-02-19 at 7.09.11 PMI am not used to driving long distances in my car so my first day on the road I only drove for 5.5 hours, the longest I’ve ever driven a car.  The first night I stayed in Mesquite, NV a small town full of casinos located about two hours northeast of Las Vegas.  This is a nice option for those who want to gamble but don’t want to spend a ton of money on fancy Vegas hotels.  I am not a gambler but this turned out to be a nice rest stop before I continued on to Page, AZ the next morning.  The day’s drive offered a lot of entertainment including all of the billboards laid out across the highway while passing through Las Vegas advertising accident lawyers and strip clubs.  The sunset light reflected off of the glass buildings of some of the casinos making the city seem like a beautiful mirage in the middle of the desert.
In Mesquite I stayed at the Virgin River Hotel & Casino for only US$27 (tax incl.), a deal found on and I got a full breakfast with eggs, toast, and coffee for US$6.50.  The casino itself was so infested with cigarette smoke that it was hard to be there for longer than half an hour.   Thankfully the rooms were located in separate buildings so I enjoyed a quite and restful night with clean air.
The beautiful geology that I was excited to find on this trip began to appear as soon as I left Mesquite.  The next 18 miles would offer stunning natural and man-made scenery while driving the road cutting through the Virgin River Gorge.  This is where I began to take my camera out.  _MG_0041I crossed from Nevada into Arizona, and up through Utah driving through towns like St. George, Hurricane, Colorado City, and Kanab finally getting on highway 89 to make it back down into Arizona to finally arrive to Page.  Page is a friendly Navajo nation city originally developed to house the workers that built the Glen Canyon Dam back in the 1950’s.  The city now hosts thousands of tourists and photographers every year who visit some of the most iconic places of the American Southwest.  This is a great base to visit Lake Powell, the Antelope Canyons (upper and lower), and Horseshoe Bend.  There are as many hotels and restaurants as there are churches in this small city.  I counted eighteen churches of various Christian denominations all spread along the same avenue.  I imagine spending a Sunday afternoon there would offer a nice display of local culture.
I spent the first night at the Rodeway Inn, a clean place with a decent breakfast for only US$41 (tax incl.).  I tried to find a cheaper room in the area known as the “little street of motels”; which offers owner-operated older and quaint motels but didn’t find any availability.
My first chance to play photographer was at Antelope Canyon.  This is a must see in the area and a well-known source of income for the Navajo tribe.  You cannot visit this place on your own and you are required to hire a Navajo guide through one of the tour operators in the tribal park.  After doing some research on different operators on Google, I decided to go with Adventurous Antelope Canyon tours.  Most companies offer various tours including the Antelope canyons plus other canyons like Rattlesnake, Owl and Mountain sheep but as you can imagine, the more you see the more you pay.  I opted for the one canyon Photographer’s tour of Upper Antelope; which cost $151.  This is almost double the price of the regular tour but you get more time inside the canyon and help from the guide with recommendations of places to photograph and settings for your camera (if needed).  It is not easy to photograph the canyons as there is a wide exposure range, some areas are really dark and some areas are really lit up due to the light reflecting off the walls.
We got to see a couple of Navajos perform a traditional dance using a hoola hoop while we waited for the tour to begin.  I thought that winter time would translate into smaller crowds but the canyon was still full of groups of tourists who take turns going through the different parts of the canyon.  We were given a total of two hours; which included the drive time (from the tour office to the entrance of the canyon) and walk-through.  The first hour inside the canyon felt very rushed as we only had one or two minutes to set up our tripods and take photos before the next group was onto us.  I was pretty nervous since it was my first time shooting in very low light conditions and maneuvering a large tripod through narrow canyon passages and big groups of people.   We reached the end of the canyon and turned around as the second hour of the tour started.  The way back through the canyon was a lot more enjoyable as the big groups had already exited the canyon and we were given longer periods of time to set up and photograph the different areas.  It felt like we had more freedom to move around and take pictures wherever we wanted.  Our guide Kirk knew the canyon well and was always happy to give suggestions on good photo ops and proper settings.  I made the mistake of showing some insecurity at the beginning which made him take over my camera at one point; which I did not appreciate at all.  I didn’t let it happen again and asked him to give me pointers without touching my equipment; which he was happy to do.  Despite having a cheap and not-so-stable tripod (learned my lesson), I managed to take pretty good photos considering that it was my first time shooting inside a canyon.I decided to create a new Instagram account (@naturebylight) to post all nature/landscape photos taken with my new camera.  I wanted to make another visit to the Lower Antelope canyon but it was closed at the time due to maintenance of the ladders.  This is a place that I will definitely revisit in the near future as I hope to photograph more canyons in the area.
I decided that it was time to begin camping to save some money on accommodations and enjoy being closer to nature.  I headed over to the Glen Canyon Recreational area to visit the Dam and get information on campgrounds from the rangers.  They suggested camping at Lone Rock Beach where I could set up my tent anywhere on the beach.  This would be the first time I would camp on my own in a desolate area.  Since I was there during the off-season, there was only one other car about half a mile away down the beach.  I wasn’t worried about safety too much as I had asked a waitress at a restaurant in town and the Lake Powell rangers if the area was safe and no one seemed to show any concern.  This was definitely one of the coolest campgrounds that I had ever been too.  The sunset was incredible with beautiful orange, red and pink tones.  I couldn’t take as many photos as I wanted since my tripod had come to the end of its short life.
Even though I was in a beautiful location, I still felt a bit uncomfortable at night being there on my own.  Well after midnight I heard some cars coming onto the beach; which freaked me out as I kept thinking that they wouldn’t see my tent and would run over me.  Luckily nothing bad happened.  The temperature also reached a low of around 20 degrees Fahrenheit; which made it hard to sleep comfortably.
The best part was the sunrise, it was truly out of this world…After a rough night I got a room at America’s Best Value Inn in town where I could upload photos onto my computer, recharge my one and only battery (the back up was not working) and plan my next stop- Horseshoe Bend.  This is a place that I had wanted to visit for a long time and photograph at both sunset and sunrise.  But before I went I had to find a place to buy a replacement tripod and some good sweat pants for camping.  I never thought I’d say this but Walmart saved my photography trip.  It was the only place in Page that sold tripods and sweatpants.  I headed out of town toward Horseshoe Bend about 1.5 hours before sunset to be sure to find a good place to set up and take photos with my new tripod.  I expected it to be very crowded but to my surprise it was pretty calm and there was plenty of room for all photographers and tourists to enjoy the views.  It only took about 15 minutes to walk from the parking lot to the viewpoint, the trail was sandy and fairly easy to follow and manage.  Once I got to the viewpoint I was completely mesmerized by its grandeur.  The Horseshoe Bend is a beautiful spectacle of nature.  This is as intimate as one gets with the river without being in it.  It is possibly the best and closest view of the Colorado river that you will have from above.  How to describe the Bend… when the Colorado river was cutting through the rock layers making the canyon, it was stopped by a giant sandstone tower and it decided to follow the path of least resistance, around it.  It is a place that will always be worth seeing at any time during the day but sunset and sunrise are definitely special moments to see how the colors of the canyon walls change as the light passes over them.  I was able to set up my camera right at the edge.  It was definitely scary but in order to get a good picture I had to do it.  I was lucky to have set up my equipment next to some knowledgeable and talented photographers whom I got to know while waiting for the sun to set.  The next day I got up early to make sure to arrive before sunrise, once again to my surprise there weren’t a lot of people there.  We were only three photographers waiting and freezing while the sun rose.  I had the pleasure of meeting Lee, a very nice Navajo man that has been shooting the Bend for 20 years.  He was nice enough to give me some pointers and offered to let me borrow his wide lens so that I could capture all sides of the canyon, something I couldn’t do with my 24mm lens.  There was another guy from Seattle there that offered for me to use his camera with a 14mm lens.  I didn’t want to take off Lee’s lens from his camera as I risked letting dust in the sensor so I accepted the Seattle guy’s offer.  What a difference a 14mm lens makes in this place!  Lee recommends going out to shoot when the sky is cloudy; which he says makes for the best photos.  I ended up taking a few shots of the canyon and later combining them in Lightroom using the HDR technique.
After spending a couple of hours with Lee and admiring the Bend as much as I could, I went back to the hotel to plan my next move.  I met the hotel manager Pushpa, another Navajo lady.  She was in a decisive moment in her life wanting to move from Page, AZ to St George, UT as she was seeking some change in her life.  She helped me think about my next steps on my trip and offered me low week rates for the weekend if I decided to come back to Page after visiting other areas in the region.  She opened up to me quickly and told me about some difficult times in her life as she had married very young and to a man that had not treated her well and had at one point threatened to take her children away if she didn’t move with him to S. Africa (his country of origin).  She also told me about her experiences battling cancer in her jaw for many years.  I could tell she was a very strong and resilient woman.  I appreciated her time and how she shared her very difficult past with me.  I was happy to interact with a local person and learn about the Navajo people.  She explained that thanks to social media the city of Page was going through a big tourism boom.  People were starting to find out more about this beautiful area and how much it had to offer as past visitors were posting their photos and stories on Facebook and Instagram.  She explained that the double room that I had paid US$36 to stay in would go for US$150 in April and May and US$300 in the summer months.   I was sure glad I opted to travel during the winter!
I continued to drive through very lonely roads enjoying the local tribal radio stations.  I finally arrived to Monument Valley to Gouldings campground after 2.5 hours.  This is the biggest campground near the park; which offers great amenities including WiFi, bathrooms with hot showers and a store full of food, hygiene products, camping gear, and souvenirs.  I had the campground all to myself and was able to choose a nice tent site near the mountains and with great views of the iconic sandstone towers located inside of Monument Valley.   After setting up my tent I headed out to the park.  I reached the entrance a few minutes after the park had closed and the guy who was manning the office did not want to open the window and just waived me through.  I was happy to save the entrance fee since I was on a tight budget.  I went to the park office to get some information on the Valley’s biggest attractions but it had already closed for the day.  As I headed back to my car I heard a lady yelling from her car “private tours in the valley” and I immediately drove to where she was.  I wanted to experience the park after hours without many tourists and wanted to see if I could get a private tour.  Any car can go through the park without a guide but the road is not paved nor maintained and I didn’t think my small Honda Fit tires would survive the long 17 mile dirt-road loop.  At first she offered a tour for US$160.  Back at the Gouldings campground office I had received a price for a similar tour for US$75 but in a bus full of tourists; which I preferred not to take if I could help it.   After negotiating for a while, we agreed on a 1.5-hour private tour in her car; which included a drive to see the main attractions and  through the back-country area for US$60.
My guide was a sweet and extremely extrovert Navajo lady.  She was happy to keep all of the money for herself (and not pay her company their cut) and I was happy to pay a very low fee for a very complete and premium tour of the Valley.  We began one hour before sunset and the light was absolutely incredible.  We were the only car in the entire park.  As we drove through the park she told me stories of her family, her children, and life with her ex-husband.  It seemed Navajo people so far felt comfortable telling me their personal stories.  For some reason they trusted me and I was very happy to learn about them and their way of life.  She explained how a lot of people came to the Valley hoping to find something they were looking for.  She wanted to know if I was going through something in my life and if I hoped to find something as well.  I am sure this applies to a lot of us, we are all always looking for something, aren’t we?
In one of the stops through the backcountry, I noticed a very large white figure in the shape of a man painted on one of the sandstone buttes.  She explained to me that it was possible to see things that were not there but that the spirits wanted me to see.  She said that I shouldn’t be afraid if I heard noises or saw things back at the campsite that night.  That it was the Navajo spirits wanting to communicate with me and I only had to ask them for their forgiveness for trespassing.  As we got to know each other, she asked if I was married and I explained to her that I had always been a bit afraid of commitment.  I spoke of my fear of ending up with a jealous or possessive man.  She began to tell me her personal story.  She had married young as it was expected in her clan and her husband was an alcoholic.  As one can imagine, life with him she explained, was not easy.  He had developed liver disease later in life and almost died in his thirties.  They had two kids in the early years of their marriage and later had two more after he recovered from the first major surgery.  She later left him for the same reasons that I had given her for not marrying anyone so far.  Now at the age of 45 she had decided to take him back.  She said things had changed, they were more mature and they were different.  She felt sorry for him and wanted to take care of him.  She talked about the importance of forgiveness and giving people a second chance.  She also regretted that he was still eating a lot of meat and food that was high in fat like the famous Navajo mutton stew and fried bread.  She had lost 100lb while they were separated but had gained them all back since she had gotten back together with him.  The tour turned out to be more than I had expected.  Not only did I get all the photos I wanted of the beautiful buttes but once again I had the opportunity to spend time with another member of the Navajo tribe.  I felt so lucky to have visited the park after hours and with this wonderful lady that shared so many of her personal stories with me.
I was overjoyed and overwhelmed by all of the good things that I was experiencing on this trip.   I felt extremely grateful.
Back at the campground, I made dinner as the temperature dropped to 30F.  I went to bed early but was not able to get a good night sleep as there were a few cats hanging out in the area that seemed to be in heat.  I also had a cold breeze coming through the tent which froze my water and my legs.  But I woke up to beautiful views of the sun rising over the buttes at a distance and enjoyed a nice breakfast on my picnic table.I headed out of town toward Mexican Hat, UT.  This is a town named after a rock formation that looks like, you guessed it, a Mexican sombrero.  I decided to take a quick photo of the rock from the road as I wanted to save the rest of the day to explore Gooseneck’s State Park nearby.  This was an amazing place with about three “horseshoebend” type of formations that looked like goosenecks, better explained… a meander formed as the San Juan river carved its way through the rock.  I saw photo opportunities every 5 min as I made my way around the entire edge of the canyon.I headed back toward Monument Valley on highway 163 to enjoy the views of the sandstone buttes from the opposite direction at sunset.   I was looking to get one of those iconic pictures that you often see of this area on the web.  I wasn’t able to get what I wanted during sunset so I got up very early to drive back up the road and get it at sunrise.  I was out there with a guy driving through the area from Michigan and two South Korean tourists who were visiting the same places that I was during their 10-day trip in the US.After two amazing days in this very special place I headed out to the Grand Canyon to do the last part of my trip.  I drove through very lonely desert highways while listening to the only radio station available in the area from the Hopi Tribe.  I listened to the tribe’s Chairman give a speech about their constant fight to maintain their region, their culture, their lands, and their music.  I experienced a road that seemed to evaporate and disappear into the horizon.  I enjoyed driving alongside the vibrant yellow and orange colors of the endless desert.
My food while camping was very basic, I ate crackers with peanut butter, oatmeal, coffee, canned soup and sandwiches.  It was too cold to cook anything that would take more than two minutes to make.   When I had to drive for long periods of time I could count on Denny’s for good rest stops, to get good WiFi and to get my eggs and veggies fill.  I felt like I was in another country, always seeing different people, and hearing different tribal languages and being stared at.  I stuck out like a soar thumb in some areas.  At first the Navajo and Hopi seemed a bit serious and cold but once you talk to them they open up and are very courteous and hospitable.
I reached the Grand Canyon in the late afternoon right before sunset.  I ended up finding space in the Mather Campground for the next two nights.  There were a few cars and campers there but the nights were very quiet.  It was so cold at night that everyone seemed to go to bed early.  Luckily it wasn’t as cold as UT though and I was able to finally get some good rest.  I ended up spending two days enjoying the views from the edges of the South Rim and taking photos of the canyon from every viewpoint.  I ended up getting a permit to spend the night in the canyon at the Bright Angel campground.  On the third day I packed up my stuff into my Gregory Deva 60 backpack, left my car at the backcountry office parking lot, and took the 9:30am shuttle to Yaki Point to begin my hike on the South Kaibab trail.  I hiked a total of 6.3 miles and descended 4,860ft to reach the Colorado river and eventually the Bright Angel campground.  I had a very enjoyable trek as I met a group of hikers (family and friends) led by Mary Lee, a super nice Tai Chi instructor from AZ.  She does the same trek into the canyon once a year with a different group of people.  She invited me to have lunch with them at one of the best views inside the canyon.  Unfortunately I never saw her again as they stayed in the Phantom Ranch lodge and I never had the energy to leave my campground at night to do the 15 minute walk to the ranch.  The ranch canteen opened to visitors at 9:00pm every night and offered drinks and board games.  But that was well past my bed time… ha ha!  The bottom of the canyon was 20 degrees warmer than the top so I took advantage of the good weather to get lots of rest at night.
I was so naive to think that I would only stay one night and head out the following day.   I was so tired from the hike down that I spoke to the rangers the following morning about staying another night.  They usually don’t allow visitors to extend their stay while at the bottom but since there weren’t many people in the canyon they decided to radio in the office at the Rim and ask for the extension.  I just had to promise to be honest and pay the backcountry office before leaving the park; which I did.
The bottom was beautiful and peaceful.  I was able to do some wildlife viewing after sunrise around camp, and enjoyed hiking on the Creek Trail on the Northern side to get great views of the Phantom Ranch and the Colorado River from above.  The rangers were also super nice, they let me borrow a book to read and I shared some travel tips with a couple of them who were planning to go to Peru.   During my hike on the Creek Trail I had the fortune of meeting some scientists and other workers that were working on reinstating the native bass into the tributaries.  They took time out from their arduous work to explain the project to me; which I greatly appreciated.
I hiked out of the canyon via the Bright Angel trail.  I spent a third night inside the canyon at the Indian Gardens campground and enjoyed a spectacular sunset at Plateau point.  I hiked a total of 9.3 miles (divided into two days) and came out of the canyon after re-gaining a mile in elevation.To summarize, I took an 11-day solo trip to experience a big part of the great American South West.  I went to see some of the most iconic and beautiful places of the desert while practicing landscape photography at Upper Antelope Canyon, Horseshoe Bend, Lake Powell, Goosenecks State Park, Mexican Hat Rock, Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon (South Rim).  I had the pleasure of meeting very hospitable and courteous Navajo people, talented photographers, friendly hikers, and helpful park rangers and workers that made my trip super enjoyable and truly unforgettable.  As always, what made the trip were the people that I met along the way!
I drove a total of 1500 miles (roundtrip), stayed in different campgrounds, enjoyed sunny clear days and freezing nights in my tent. I got up for every sunrise, and enjoyed every sunset. I pushed my physical limits by backpacking a total of 26 miles while carrying a 36lb pack in and out of the Grand Canyon.  And I could not stop smiling the whole time.


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