Category Archives: Photographs: The Southwest

Base of the Cliff

Base of the Cliff
Autumn plants growing at the base of a sandstone cliff

Base of the Cliff. Capitol Reef National Park, Utah. October 22, 2014. © Copyright 2014 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

Autumn plants growing at the base of a sandstone cliff

It seems that we have arrived at that time when each year my thoughts begin to turn again to autumn photography. That is probably my favorite season as it includes those final warm days of Indian summer, the first inkling of the coming winter, the annual color transition as trees lose their leaves, and the first real winter weather — all of which are favorite photographic subjects of mine. (I’ll be paying special attention to Sierra Nevada fall color this coming season, for a number of reasons, but especially since this is the first autumn following the publication of my book on the subject: California’s Fall Color: A Photographer’s Guide to Autumn in the Sierra” from Heyday Press.)

So, an autumn photograph! This one comes from last October, when I had the opportunity to make a photography trip through some of may favorite areas of southern Utah. Partway through the trip I met up with my friend and fellow photographer, David Hoffman. We spent several days poking around in and photographing Capitol Reef National Park. On this evening we passed through a narrow gorge not far from our camp, quickly stopped, and ended up photographing the red rock canyon walls and the autumn colors until the light faded at the end of the day.


G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer and visual opportunist. His book, “California’s Fall Color: A Photographer’s Guide to Autumn in the Sierra” is available from Heyday Books and Amazon.
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Cottonwood Tree, Evening

Cottonwood Tree, Evening
The day’s last light catches the autumn leaves of a cottonwood tree, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Cottonwood Tree, Evening. Capitol Reef National Park, Utah. October 22, 2014. © Copyright 2014 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

The day’s last light catches the autumn leaves of a cottonwood tree, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

I made a long trip to Utah to photograph last fall, mostly photographing in the southwest and south-central part of the state. At times I worked alone, exploring slot canyons, washes, and back roads at my leisure. Later I met up with various other folks: photographers from California and Utah, relatives who were also visiting the state, and eventually members of my family. It may surprise some people to hear that I was almost completely unaware of the beauties of southern Utah until recently. (My family had passed through the state many times when I was young, but always through empty, arid regions that did not appeal to me then. Somehow they never showed me the spectacular red rock country, and consequently I thought of Utah as an empty and arid place.)

During the first week of the trip, after several days on my own, I met up with my friend and fellow California photographer David Hoffman in Capitol Reef National Park, where we camped and explored and photographed for several days. This day began with a spectacular and somewhat unexpected sunrise above the Waterpocket Fold, included a long drive on gravel roads to a more remote region of the park, and concluded along the road through the park with early evening photography just before we returned to camp. This section of the road passes though a valley lined with red rock walls, and it is filled with cottonwood and other trees. Late October is prime time for cottonwood color, and this scene of a backlit cottonwood below vertical sandstone cliffs seems representative of this time of year in this place.

(I taking a weekend break from posting my recent Sierra Nevada photographs — they will return on Monday.)


G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer and visual opportunist. His book, “California’s Fall Color: A Photographer’s Guide to Autumn in the Sierra” is available from Heyday Books and Amazon.
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Cottonwood Trees and Redrock Canyon, Autumn

Cottonwood Trees and Redrock Canyon, Autumn
Brilliantly colorful autumn cottonwood foliage winds down a Utah redrock canyon

Cottonwood Trees and Red Rock Canyon, Autumn. Utah. October 26, 2014. © Copyright 2014 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

Brilliantly colorful autumn cottonwood foliage winds down a Utah red rock canyon

After four days of photography and camping in the far reaches of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, I came out to civilization and spent a night at Boulder Mountain Lodge. (Not my usual thing, but I had an appointment to meet someone there — and it was quite a fine visit!) Arriving a bit early, I decided to head out on a nearby road just to see what I could see.

I knew this road a bit from traveling it in the past — I was looking forward to red rock cliffs and some cottonwood color. But I was not prepared for the intensity of the autumn cottonwoods in this little canyon. The effect was a combination of arriving at the peak moment of color for these trees, and the fact that the light was slightly softened by some high clouds. The result was one of those colorful scenes that you imagine but rarely actually find, with the tree winding down the canyon and around the far bend.


G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer and visual opportunist. His book, “California’s Fall Color: A Photographer’s Guide to Autumn in the Sierra” is available from Heyday Books and Amazon.
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Dead Trees, Sandstone Pothole

Dead Trees, Sandstone Pothole
Dead trees lie at the bottom of a deep sandstone pothole, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

Dead Trees, Sandstone Pothole. Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah. October 23. 2014. © Copyright 2014 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

Dead trees lie at the bottom of a deep sandstone pothole, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

There are multiple ways to react to the remarkable sandstone potholes from this terrain of rounded sandstone hills and gentle slabs. First of all, they are remarkable structures. They are simply “holes” in the sandstone — but surprisingly large holes. They are many feet across and perhaps 15-20 feet deep. They have no outlet, and you can imagine that with the right water source they would make rather gigantic swimming holes. Their source is not immediately apparent, though I understand that they are created over a long period of time by the forces of wind and water on the relatively soft sandstone.

They are beautiful, too. Their smooth, curving shapes have an almost sensuous quality, made stronger by the warm colors of the sandstone rock. Surprisingly, plants and even trees grow at the bottom of many of them. But these potholes may also be traps — there is no way out of their depths except for those creatures that can fly. In the middle or relatively smooth expanses of sandstone, these pits appear suddenly, and the angles at their edges quickly increase to vertical, making them potentially dangerous. The pothole in this photograph seems to me to have a bit less of the rock garden quality and a bit more of the ominous quality, with two dead cottonwood trees and broken branches littering the bottom of the pit.


G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer and visual opportunist. Blog | About | Flickr | Twitter | FacebookGoogle+ | 500px.com | LinkedIn | Email


All media © Copyright G Dan Mitchell and others as indicated. Any use requires advance permission from G Dan Mitchell.

Cottonwood Tree, Sandstone Pothole

Cottonwood Tree, Sandstone Pothole
A cottonwood tree with fall foliage stands in the bottom of a sandstone pothole.

Cottonwood Tree, Sandstone Pothole. Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah. October 23, 2014. © Copyright 2014 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

A cottonwood tree with fall foliage stands in the bottom of a sandstone pothole.

Coming upon one of the large and deep sandstone potholes is a strange experience. There is something almost spooky about them. At first there is no obvious explanation for how such a thing could come to be. (It involves water and wind and long periods of time.) There is something strangely attractive about them and you want to get closer and closer to the edge. But this is a very dangerous proposition. The incline of the rock increases quickly and then quickly becomes vertical. It is a long ways down — perhaps as much as twenty feet. And anyone falling into such a pothole would not only be injured by the fall but would find it virtually impossible to get out without help. (There are stories of people finding dead animals that had fallen in and died there.)

There is positive magic about these formations, too, especially when a beautiful cottonwood tree grows within one of them, creating a kind of magical garden cut off from the rest of the world. We came to this area late in the day, climbed up onto VAST sandstone slabs, picked a route across the terrain, and arrived at a place where there were several of the potholes, many of which were home to cottonwood trees full of autumn foliage.


G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer and visual opportunist. Blog | About | Flickr | Twitter | FacebookGoogle+ | 500px.com | LinkedIn | Email


All media © Copyright G Dan Mitchell and others as indicated. Any use requires advance permission from G Dan Mitchell.

Dry Mud and Sand

Dry Mud and Sand
Dry, cracked mud on top of red sand under reflected canyon light, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

Dry Mud and Sand. Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah. October 25, 2014. © Copyright 2014 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

Dry, cracked mud on top of red sand under reflected canyon light, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

I almost titled this photograph, “Another Photograph of Mud.” But I have resisted that temptation, and once again used a simple more or less objective title. But, indeed, this is almost a photographic type when it comes to the Southwest, and one that is awfully difficult to pass up. These formations come about when silt-laden water rushes down desert canyons, washes, and streams, leaving behind a layer of very wet silt. The layer may be thin, as it was in this case, or it may be quite thick. In one narrow canyon last year I slipped into such silt-mud and it almost seemed like there was not bottom!

I’m not sure quite what explains our fascination with these formations. Is it because they are among the most transient features of the physical landscape, disappearing and then reforming every time it rains? Is it the patterns themselves, which can have a wonderful geometric quality and, at the same time, embody a randomness? Is it the combination of the colors of the material, which can range from white through black with many colors in between, and the reflected canyon light? Possibly it is all of these things and more.


G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer and visual opportunist. Blog | About | Flickr | Twitter | FacebookGoogle+ | 500px.com | LinkedIn | Email


All media © Copyright G Dan Mitchell and others as indicated. Any use requires advance permission from G Dan Mitchell.

Fall Foliage, Sandstone Canyon

Fall Foliage, Sandstone Canyon
The colors of fall foliage and red sandstone canyon rock, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Fall Foliage, Sandstone Canyon . Capitol Reef National Park, Utah. October 22, 2014. © Copyright 2014 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

The colors of fall foliage and red sandstone canyon rock, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

These are the kinds of Utah colors that make some of us return to California and to find that “our Sierra Nevada” looks a bit more gray than we thought! In my experience, the color season in southern Utah begins in late September with the arrival of aspen color. (I have seen it, but so far have arrived just after the peak color.) It continues later in the month as the lower elevation cottonwood trees become intensely colorful. In some places the show is still continuing in early November.

The fall color show on its own would be impressive, but place those colors against the backdrop of Utah’s colorful sandstone landscape and the overall effect is very powerful. We returned from a daytime adventure elsewhere in Capitol Reef National Park and passed through this canyon area just before sunset. The light in the areas shaded by the tall cliffs was already becoming soft and luminous, and in this light the colors can become even more intense. We stopped and more or less wandered for as the sun continued to drop, photographing in the quite evening right up until the light was too far gone.


G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer and visual opportunist. Blog | About | Flickr | Twitter | FacebookGoogle+ | 500px.com | LinkedIn | Email


All media © Copyright G Dan Mitchell and others as indicated. Any use requires advance permission from G Dan Mitchell.