Travel photography: USA
Southwestern Landscapes - Part 1

October 22, 2016


The geography of the American Southwest is dominated by deserts, namely the Mojave, Sonoran, and Chihuahuan deserts, and the Colorado Plateau. The two major rivers of the region are the Colorado River, running in the northern and western areas, and the Rio Grande, running in the south.

The remarkable and versatile landscape offers numerous stunning views and the finest places have been turned into national parks.

In this article I'd like to focus more on the dry and desert landscapes which will be followed up by forest landscapes in a later one.

Somewhere in New Mexico. A straight road to the horizon is a typical sight on a cross country road trip.
The sun breaking through the clouds at the Santa Fe National Forest. Notice the tiny helicopter.

Great Sand Dunes

In the San Luis Valley between the Sangre de Cristo Range and the San-Juan Mountains in Colorado an 80 km² patch of sand dunes has formed over the millennia. These are the highest sand dunes in North America.

The dunes have formed in a very interesting natural process over the last 12000 years. Sand deposits from the Rio Grande were carried by the wind to the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Range where they accumulated to a height of up to 230 meters.

Medano Creek at the Great Sand Dunes in Colorado. Due to the constant influx of fresh sand the creek forms ever changing underwater dunes.
The Sangre de Cristo Range seen from the Dunes.
Entrance to Great Sand Dunes National Park.
Iconic views of the Great Sand Dunes in late afternoon light.

Monument Valley

View of the famous US Highway 163 leading up to the characteristic sandstone buttes Brighams Tomb (right) and the Stagecoach (left). This image was taken at Forrest Gump Point (Yes, that was named after the movie. It's the spot where he decides to stop running.) which is probably the best photo spot in the area.

The buttes in Monument Valley consist of sandstone that was formed about 275 million years ago, at a time when the whole area was a basin. Sand was carried into the basin and got trapped in various layers – the upper layers compressing the lower layers to sandstone. About 70 million years ago the whole area was elevated to an altitude of around 2000 meters in an event called the Laramide orogeny.

From there winds and precipitation formed the landscape into the spectacular, up to 300 meter tall buttes we see today.

Just when the sun rises over the hills and illuminates the rocks is the ideal time for taking pictures.
Since rain is not so common in the desert I'm especially happy about this special image of Big Indian.
The rainbow wasn't ideally located for this image but a wide panorama still works acceptably well.

Grand Canyon

Probably the most famous landscape in the USA, the 450 km long Grand Canyon separates the northern Arizona Strip from the rest of the state. The canyon has a width of 6 to 30 km and is not crossed by any bridges. Interestingly the rims are characterized by vastly different microclimates where the south rim is typically hot and comparatively dry the north rim is covered by the Kaibab National Forrest and subject to much cooler temperatures and more precipitation.

Wotans Throne seen from the north rim.

I visited the north rim of Grand Canyon for a duration of three days and I was surprised by the cold temperature and frequent rainfall. Due to the weather I didn't manage to get good photos of the canyon the first few days. On my last day I got up before sunrise and drove up to the 25 km long road that leads from the campground to the canyon. I was shocked to discover that the Park Service had closed the road overnight which meant for me that the only chance of getting some good images would be lost.

This was one of those situations where it is unfortunately necessary to break some rules to get a good image. After some hesitation I decided to move aside the barricades, enter the road, put the barricades back in place and continue to the canyon. At this point I already knew that the park rangers would find me when they do their morning patrol but this was most likely the last time I would have the opportunity to take pictures of Grand Canyon in my life and I accepted the prospect of getting caught.

The sun rose over the horizon and already disappeared under the clouds within a few minutes. There was only this very brief moment of sunlight on the canyon but it was enough for me to get one good image.
The clouds unfortunately blocked out the morning light but the fog in the canyon still created a fairly interesting mood.

When I headed back from the shoot I of course met a park ranger checking the road for fallen rocks and trees. He was less than pleased about my trespassing but after I explained that morning light is absolutely indispensable for great photography and that I was extra careful for hazards and wildlife (which is very active in the early morning) he wasn't even really mad at me and thankfully let me off the hook without a ticket.

I would like to say very clearly that I wouldn't recommend doing what I did since you can endanger yourself and trespassing in a national park also carries a maximum fine of $500 and up to six months in jail. If you decide to do so however know that you are on your own, have to watch out for dangers yourself and take utmost care not to create any disturbances or even damages in the park. Basically every rule in the park is in place because of idiots and stupid behavior so if you break the rules at least don't be one of those.


The easy accessibility with the great shuttle system and the exceptional and unique landscape made Zion easily my favorite of the six parks I visited.

View into Zion Canyon. The scenery is characterized by the vertical rock walls surrounding the green valley.
Basically all the trails in the park offer stunning views but the trail to Angels Landing is probably the most scenic. This image was taken at Scout Lookout looking through Refrigerator- into Zion Canyon.
View from the top of Angels Landing into the canyon.
I like this shot since the contrast between sun and shade reminds me of some underwater images.
The Watchman seen from the Valley.

Should you ever visit Zion, regardless if you intend to take pictures or not, let me give you a piece of advice: Don't be one of those people who go on a trail at 9:00 in the morning. It is going to be unbearably hot (at least during the summer months) and the tourist masses will clog the trails and the shuttle (you'll have to wait in line for more than an hour). The first shuttle of the day leaves at 6:00 and that's the one you want to take. It is going to be fairly empty (or at least you don't have to wait in line), the sun is still not out and won't shine on your back constantly during your ascent and you won't meet and have to wait for any people going up (trails are narrow). I'm not even talking about the morning light that is essential for photography. The masses are too lazy to get up early – make good use of that fact.

The noble residence during my stay in the parks. I just wanted to put this image here to show that camping is the best way of experiencing the remote places that offer the greatest landscapes. It is vital to be on the spot right in the morning for landscape photography and staying close to your intended subject.

To be continued…

There will be more landscape photography in this series but the next article will focus on cities. See it here.

Thanks for reading!

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