The landscapes of the American Southwest are legendary. I am constantly inspired by it’s grand and unexplored terrain and the rich red color of the martian desert, set against rugged mountainous backdrops.
As beautiful and enchanting as it is, photographing the Southwest is not easy. Endless drives down seemingly never ending dirt roads, camping for days on end without a shower, and quickly changing plans due to the severe and unpredictable weather.
But even with all of the hardships that come with a trip to the American Southwest, the reward of gazing over an otherworldly panorama as the clouds light up in pink and orange hues remind you that the American Southwest is one of the most beautiful places on earth. And one of the last truly wild frontiers left.
Dead Horse Point, Utah
Dead Horse Point State Park lies in one of Utah’s most impressive protected areas. It got it’s morbid name from the legendary tale of horses being led to this viewpoint and being left to die of thirst. The landscape is harsh and barren, but the oasis that is the Colorado River lies 2,000 feet below.
The best time to photograph Dead Horse Point is sunrise. Early in the morning, the viewpoint is quiet, but make sure to get there about one hour before sunrise to be prepared for changing cloud colors. The sun’s initial rays light up the gritty rock formations, giving you details and warm tones in your foreground.
The Bisti Wilderness, New Mexico
The Bisti Wilderness is a captivating landscape of heavily eroded badlands outside of Farmington, New Mexico. The water and strong winds have carved the shale, mud, stone, coal and sandstone into a beautiful scene of dramatic rock formations.
Waking up before dawn to capture the sky turning colors and witnessing the rock formations is crucial to experiencing the Bisti Wilderness. At the end of the day, the rock formations re-saturate as golden hour descends. In harsh mid-day light, you should look to capture details within the geology. Evidence of fossils and petroglyphs that have been found in the park, so there is plenty to see if you look closely enough. Make sure to carefully track the weather systems to finderfect combination of awe-inspiring landscapes with a dramatically changing sky above and approaching storms.
Despite creating captivating images, shooting storms in remote locations can be dangerous. Always be prepared and use common sense.
The Grand Vistas of the Grand Canyon, Arizona
One of the American Southwest’s most treasured landscapes, The Grand Cayon, lies in northern Arizona and is easily accessible via paved roads. With over two billion years of geologic history, this location is extremely popular with photographers and sightseers. Be prepared for large crowds no matter when you visit, but the view of the of the massive canyon with the Colorado River a mile down is awe-inspiring and should never be missed.
Moran Point on the South Rim is one of the most impressive views in the park. The changing light and quickly moving shadows create beautiful scenes both in the early morning as well as the late afternoon.
The Grand Canyon is an impressive sight, and despite its immense popularity, is still one of the most peaceful places in the United States.
Hunt’s Mesa, Utah/Arizona Border
Hunt’s Mesa lies on the Utah/Arizona border and is a landscape of immense sandstone buttes that extend from the high desert of the Colorado Plateau. When most people envision the ‘American Wild West’, they conjure up dreams landscapes just like Hunt’s Mesa. Hiring a local Navajo guide can yield great results, as my guide Ray was able to take me to some less frequented regions of the nearby Navajo Reservation.
Despite being only a 15-mile drive, the drive to Hunt’s Mesa in Ray’s 4WD took two hours. Rocky boulders and 45-degree angle hills make it almost mandatory to go with a guide who knows the lay of the land. You do not want to get stuck out here.
The sunset light in Hunt’s Mesa is incredible and made the tough journey well worth it. Spending one afternoon was not enough, and I can’t wait to return.
Lake Powell’s Alstrom Point, Utah
Alstrom Point at Lake Powell is a beautiful location only accessible by high clearance vehicles. Once you arrive, you position yourself on a cliff overlooking the drought-stricken Lake Powell, which is the largest reservoir in the country. The sandstone buttes that surround the lake’s shores glow a beautiful orange during the sun’s low angle in the magic hour before sunset.
Carefully navigate the cliff’s edge, as I almost had to make the choice between losing my gear or my life when I jumped around too quickly. Luckily, I lost neither, but it was a reminder to never take the dangers of locations for granted.
The American Southwest – A Landscape Photographer’s Dream
The challenges you may face when photographing a location as remote as the American Southwest makes the resulting photographs have more personal meaning. I can proudly say I earned every photo I took on my trip. And too me, that is what landscape photography is all about.