All the pictures that I put up from the trip can be found in my recent gallery.
I took a week off between Christmas and New Year’s Day since I somehow managed to leave four vacation days unused through the summer. I’ve never taken a longer vacation this time of year before. I was originally thinking of heading to Canyonlands, but I finally got my wits and decided to head to some places I haven’t been to previously, but ones I’ve been wanting to see. Well, I have been to Grand Canyon when I was a kid with the family, but not with a camera.
White Sands was to be the first stop on the trip. A place I’ve been really wanting to visit for the past eight years, but just never made it a priority. It’s a bit out of the way being directly south of Denver eight hours. The big problem with White Sands is that the park isn’t that photographer-friendly. The monument is closed at night and opens after sunrise; during the summer, apparently they let you stay out an hour after sunset, but during the winter, they start making people exit just after. The only way to stay in the park, without paying a $50 early access fee, is to backpack about a mile in and stay in one of the ten designated campsites. So, that’s what I was going to have to do. I was just hoping that the temperature wouldn’t fall too much below the upper 20s when I’d be there. Thankfully, it was 30 and 31 degrees for the two nights that I stayed there. I really, really enjoyed the place. The soft pastel blues are absolutely amazing around sunrise and sunset. By my best estimation, the tallest dunes are 20-30 feet, and every bowl has a flat floor at virtually the same elevation. Compared to the Great Sand Dunes, this place was like walking on an interstate; you can really cover some ground in fairly short order even though the sand is much finer–almost a powder. It was really incredible to visit for the first time. I’d definitely go again.
After White Sands, it was time to head to Grand Canyon, but since Bisti Wilderness (35 miles south of Farmington in northwest New Mexico) lies pretty much en route, I was planning to stop here overnight. The drive up takes quite awhile, and I wasn’t sure I was going to make it by sunset after my 9:15 AM departure from White Sands. I was pushing for time, but arrived at the trailhead, threw my stuff together, walked the flat 1.6 miles out to the formations I was wanting to see as quickly as I could, and had about five minutes of light to work with on the egg formations. I had a wonderful sunset there and continued to shoot some other formations until dark when I hiked back to the trailhead. I had wanted to shoot sunrise as well, but it was overcast, and a snow system was arriving in the region. The drive to, and out of, Farmington and just into Arizona was painfully slow and very slick with a good bit of snow on the roads. In fact, just before I got to Farmington, the back end of the 4Runner went out of control; I ended up doing five to seven 45-degree skids between about 55 and 25 MPH. Thankfully, there was no traffic at this point and I managed to keep the 4Runner on the road.
I arrived at Grand Canyon only to find it totally fog-filled along with snow conditions with heavy 40 MPH winds. I got shut out the first night, and forecast didn’t look better for the second day. I ended up camping just south of the park entrance along a national forest road (FR328, for those who like to do the free thing like me). Thankfully, the second day saw patches of blue sky in the afternoon and I had plenty of light in the canyon. I even got a bit of color at sunset. The forecast was calling for a low of -4, but ended up getting to -28, I believe. The coldest I had ever camped previously was 8 degrees at Great Sand Dunes in 2010. I had tremendous conditions the third day, and the low temperature on January 1 got to -30! I’ve never been out when it’s been this cold, but I would’ve expected it to feel a lot colder. As it was, I stayed plenty warm, though as I rolled over in my sleeping bag around 3:30 AM, my zipper split. I still managed to stay warm as I was wearing my huge and very warm down coat, though there were cool spots. After sunrise on New Year’s Day, I headed for Moab, where I would take a look at my bag’s zipper. No go. I was planning to stay in this area for the final night, but decided to head for home after sunset. Overall, it was a very rewarding trip photographically, and I really, really enjoyed it. It’s also great to know that I really have no boundary, temperture-wise, on the low end of the scale.