Utah Badlands: Pt. 2
Waking up at the edge of a high cliff before dawn overlooking the blue rolling hills of Utah’s Badlands will be one of the highlights of my life…
If you haven’t read part one of this story you can find it here.
My morning had begun by waking up surrounded by majestic red rock buttes before the day’s first light in the Valley of the Gods, and I had just gotten back on the road after hiking into and exploring a large slot canyon. The place was special and the light had hit just right leaving me with a buzz only landscape photographers can truly understand. I was feeling pretty optimistic about the remainder of the day and the trip at large.
I had an hour and a half drive to my next destination and didn’t plan on photographing it until much later in the day. Having some time to kill I decided to make a detour to a location that was on my schedule for the next day’s sunrise to get a short scouting session in. I’m very methodical and if at all possible I prefer to have my main composition and secondary images framed ahead of time. As I blasted the van up Hwy 95 through the labyrinth of red rock and cedar the weather began to change dramatically. The clear skies were becoming increasing moody and snow squalls had become visible on the high peaks of a massive 12,000 foot sky island mountain that was now slowly rising up and filling the horizon north of me. I grew excited at the prospect of hopefully making it the background of some of my images.
After some time I was getting close to my next stop where I planned to scout for my next day’s compositions. Turning off the highway I obediently followed the directions being given to me by the voice coming from my maps app. It was a beat up and particularly rocky stretch of dirt road that I was to continue down for 3 miles. Halfway down the route the road suddenly ended in an abrupt berm that had clearly been pushed up with a bulldozer. Perplexed and a little bit irritated I got out to survey the situation. Climbing up atop the berm I could see that the road had indeed been intentionally closed, but that there was a secondary road a hundred yards or so beyond that could be accessed from the highway. I got back in the van and retraced my route; circling back out to the highway and turning off onto the secondary road not marked on the map. Camping just off the road a family of rubber tramps in an old dusty RV informed me that the location I was seeking was just a mile or two further and that the road was clear. I thanked and wished them well on their journey and within a few short minutes was pulling up at the magical little valley of red and white mushroom shaped hoodoos.
The valley is no more than the size of a football field and filled with oddly sculpted petrified clay formations that look straight out of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. I had stumbled upon it during my research phase for this trip. I had the place completely to myself and it appeared that I had for some time with no sign of recent human visitation. I was in luck… the snowy sky island was almost perfectly placed in the background some 20 miles away. I decided this location was a long lens spot with opportunities for layered compositions. I packed my S1R along with the Sigma 85mm and 135mm primes into my shoulder bag and hiked down the embankment. Wandering around the maze of hoodoos I had a feeling of being watched. The bizarre shapes of the formations allow for tricks to be played on you visually and I was frequently peeking over my shoulder. The overcast and moody sky persisted and actually worked well for the location. I had planned for this to be my sunrise composition for the next day, but decided to go ahead and make some intentional photographs. The juxtaposition of the alpine mountain in the distance felt cold against the foreground of warm red clay. I spent the next hour shooting various angles taking advantage of the compression given from the longer focal lengths before heading back to the van and moving on to what I thought would be my final destination for the day… a region of jurassic era mounds consisting of heavily striated soil layers.
After a short stop in the only town I had passed through in hours to fuel up and track down some camping supplies I changed highways and headed west. Fifteen minutes later I was turning off onto another dirt road and as I crested an initial small ridge bouncing over a metal cattle guard the view opened up before me. This location can best be described as otherworldly. It’s deliberate in its starkness. Dull and vibrant all at the same time. Full of contrast. Jagged, lifeless, and primordial. The single track road meanders through gauntlets of vehicle sized boulders before opening up into a wide plain of barren primer grey dust surrounded on all sides by vivid bulbous mounds of deep burgundy, ash grey, and pink. In fact, the landscape was so alien that I stopped the van, put on the Interstellar movie soundtrack, and really took in the feel of the place. It was perfectly fitting.
I had a very specific formation I was looking for and it had been the most difficult to track down during the research phase. I had spent hours pouring over satellite imagery with no success when a friend from Facebook gave me a few clues. Pulling up and stepping out of the van I was immediately struck by just how barren this place is. Nothing grows here. There are no birds chirping. Once again I was alone and pulled out the drone to do a few quick flights to check the place out from above. It was impressive… the mounds roll on for miles. I shot a few top down images and more traditional views as well as a few motion clips before landing the drone and hiking in with my pack. Now we get to the part of the story that, for me, was a real downer and eye opener. As I approached the mounds I quickly realized that they are extremely fragile. A thin shell like crust is the top most layer and in an arid region like this that crust does not repair itself once broken. There were foot prints everywhere. In some spots you could see where people had thrown baseball sized rocks into the sides of the hills and even evidence of fist prints from someone punching through the crust. It was disheartening. Trails of foot prints across untouched sections of the crust that will likely last decades or longer. A total lack of respect for what nature had created. There are a few established narrow trails up and around some of the formations, but even those are now showing signs of causing erosion. Real damage is being done to this place and for that reason I will not name it. We need to do better than this. My plan had been to stay for sunset, but the sky wasn’t looking promising for any good dusk light so I decided to head to a nearby location that had been put on my wish list for this trip, but had not made it onto the final itinerary.
The road out was well maintained gravel and straight as an arrow. The iconic Factory Butte rose like a medieval castle to my left. I knew from my research that I would take this road out 4-5 miles before turning onto an unmarked wilderness road that I only knew existed because of the thin line it had etched into the plateau on satellite images. I was uncertain whether it was even passable with the big rear wheel drive van. Although more a trail than a road it turned out to be quite drivable and I followed it out another 2 miles passing a few grazing cattle along the way. Dead-ending at a cliff I knew right away that this spot was world class. The plateau drops away straight down several hundred feet. The ragged edge is eroded in a beautifully sculptural way and at the bottom blue hued rolling hills go all the way to the horizon. The snowy sky island I had been watching all day loomed like a distant city more than 20 miles to the south. Sunset was approaching and although I knew from the look of the sky that it would be a dud photographically I had a great feeling about the following sunrise. I retreated to the van for some dinner and a beer and before long the handful of people who had been enjoying the cliffside view with me moved on to other destinations… once again I had solitude. The solitude was short lived and was broken sometime after 10pm when I heard another camper van pull up and park directly next to mine. The winds outside were howling and the temperatures frigid. For the next hour my new neighbors opened and slammed their van doors what seemed like 200 times making getting some much needed sleep difficult.
I rolled over and peeked out of the back windows of the van in the blue hour to see the winds had died down and the sky was no longer overcast. I quickly got dressed and crawled out of the van with my camera and tripod to set up my main composition I had planned the night before. At some point overnight a filmmaker had arrived and set up a time-lapse camera directly in the spot I had anticipated shooting from. It was only a minor change to find an equally appealing composition and still 30 minutes until official dawn. The sky had mainly cleared from the night before and the cold front had left behind gorgeous wispy clouds. The air was crisp and quite cold and I regretted forgetting my gloves back in Phoenix. The snow was still squalling up on the sky island and I knew I was about to be treated to a magical sunrise. I set my main camera to shoot a photo every 20 seconds while I went and retrieved my secondary camera from the van. As the sun erupted over the eastern horizon it blasted the cliff face, turned the clouds into cotton candy, and painted the rolling blue hills in the most magnificent way. I went to work for the next 45 minutes making photographs of the badlands below with the Sigma 85mm prime while the main camera on tripod took care of the scene unfolding along the cliffs edge. In that moment everything aligned for a beautiful morning of photography and I fell into a compositional rhythm I hadn’t felt in years. After golden hour passed I put away my cameras, made a warm breakfast, and sat cliffside with a perfectly brewed mug of coffee. Waking up at the edge of a high cliff before dawn overlooking the blue rolling hills of Utah’s Badlands will be one of the highlights of my life.
Stay tuned for the forthcoming ‘Utah Badlands: Pt.3’
You can view the entire Utah Badlands Collection here.
All images shot with the Panasonic S1R and the Sigma ART 40mm 1.4, Sigma ART 135mm 1.8, and Sigma ART 24mm 1.4 lenses.
Arizona landscape photographer, Travis Neely, has been photographing the American West for more than 5 years. His landscape photography is available for purchase as fine art prints and for commercial licensing. Travis also teaches landscape photography and digital post processing through private workshops.