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Utah, Nevada and California

In February 2023, I flew to Las Vegas (Altitude 610m) and, the organised trip having been cancelled, rented a car and drove myself 320km up to Kanab (Altitude 1,515m) in Utah as a base to visit both Zion and Bryce National Parks. Zion, my first stop, is located in southwestern Utah near the town of Springdale, 258km from Las Vegas. Located at the junction of the Colorado Plateau, Great Basin, and Mojave Desert regions, the park includes mountains, canyons, buttes (isolated steep sided hills with flat tops), mesas (similar), monoliths, rivers, slot canyons (Long narrow gorges created by water erosion) and natural arches. It ranges in altitude from 1,117m to 2,660m at Horse Ranch Mountain. A prominent feature of the 590km2 park is Zion Canyon, which is 24km long and up to 800m deep. The canyon walls are reddish and tan-coloured Navajo Sandstone eroded by the North Fork of the Virgin River. Human habitation of the area started about 8,000 years ago with small family groups of Native Americans. Mormons came into the area and settled there in the early 1860s. In 1909, President Taft named the area Mukuntuweap National Monument in order to protect the canyon. In 1918, the acting director of the newly created National Park Service, Horace Albright, drafted a proposal to enlarge the existing monument and change the park's name to Zion National Monument, Zion being a term used by the Mormons. According to historian Hal Rothman, the name change played to a prevalent bias of the time. Many believed that Spanish and Indian names would deter visitors who, if they could not pronounce the name of a place, might not bother to visit it. In 1919, Congress redesignated the monument as Zion National Park. I was joined by one of the tour leaders from Action Photo Tours, who drove 130km from St George to Kanab to collect me by 5am and to drive up to the park in the dark to take me the best dawn photo locations. A blessing in these situations to have somebody who knows their way around! We had a great tour, heading back by about 2pm.

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Bryce Canyon National Park, our second point of call the next day, is located 130km from Zion towards Las Vegas. The major feature of the park is Bryce Canyon, which despite its name, is not a canyon, but a collection of giant natural amphitheatres along the eastern side of the Paunsaugunt Plateau. The park is much smaller but sits at a much higher elevation than Zion, varying from 2,400m to 2,700m and it’s a bit chilly for my dawn visit with a brisk freezing wind at 2,700m. The area was settled by Mormon pioneers in the 1850s and was named after Ebenezer Bryce, who homesteaded in the area in 1874. The area was originally designated as a national monument by President Harding in 1923 but was redesignated as a national park by Congress in 1928, covering 145km2. In 2018, Bryce Canyon received 2.7m visitors, but in winter it’s quiet and a good time to visit: the desert floor is covered in snow but there are still hiking trails open, aided by micro spikes (Crampons) so I was pleased to have brought mine. Not, you might note, suitable for ski-ing, however. Bryce Canyon technically is not a ‘canyon’. Instead, erosion has excavated large amphitheatre shaped features in the rocks of the Paunsaugunt Plateau. This has resulted in delicate and colourful pinnacles called ‘hoodoos’ that are up to 60m high, formed by frost weathering and stream erosion of the river and lake bed sedimentary rocks. The red, orange, and white colours of the rocks provide spectacular views for park visitors. A series of amphitheatres extends more than 30 km north-to-south within the park. The largest is Bryce Amphitheatre, which is 19km long, 5km wide and 240m deep.

The following day I visited White Wave (Including a number of native American petroglyphs) and Peekaboo canyon and spent several hours in the afternoon and evening at the aptly named Toadstools near Kanab, taking my first star trails photo, 11 exposures of 5 minutes each, aided by some light painting, and merged into a final photo with StarStax software. It’s a long day and I was keen to know what wildlife comes out at night as I hiked back about a mile to the road by myself aided solely by a (hopefully) trusty head torch and mobile phone (I now understand that Rattlers do not come out at this time of year… very sensible of them).

Between trips to the National Parks, I spent a couple of days in Las Vegas, took my camera out and explored both the Strip and the old downtown area around Fremont Street. Las Vegas (Spanish for "The Meadows"), often known simply as Vegas, is the 25th most populous city in the U.S.A. It is an internationally renowned major resort city, known primarily for its gambling, shopping, fine dining, entertainment, and nightlife. The city is famous for its luxurious and extremely large casino-hotels, so designed that once you are in, there is no natural light and you cannot find your way out again. It was settled in 1905 off the incoming railway. Population growth has accelerated since the 1960s, and between 1990 and 2000 alone the population increased by 85% to over 2.2 million. However, Nevada is the driest state in the U.S.A. and droughts in Southern Nevada have been increasing in frequency and severity, putting a further strain on Las Vegas' water security. Fremont Street features the largest video screen in the world, recently renovated for $32million. The screen has 16.4million pixels, is 420m long, 27m wide and is suspended 27m above Fremont Street’s pedestrian mall. I decided that ICM best suited this location!

I then joined a group of seven photographers with a guide from a U.S. based company, Back Country Journeys  (On this occasion, in a role reversal from the usual, I am the token Brit amongst Americans) to drive 230km and spend four nights at Furnace Creek in Death Valley, a desert valley in Eastern California, in the northern Mojave Desert, bordering the Great Basin Desert. It is home to the Timbisha tribe of Native Americans, formerly known as the Panamint Shoshone, who have inhabited the valley for at least the past millennium.  Death Valley's Badwater Basin is the point of lowest elevation in North America, at 86m below sea level. On the afternoon of July 10, 1913, the United States Weather Bureau recorded a high temperature of 134 °F (56.7 °C) at Furnace Creek, which stands as the highest ambient air temperature ever recorded on the surface of the Earth (Although disputed). At this time of year, it is on the decidedly cool side, especially at altitude at dawn but the skies are so, so dry and clear! Lying near the border of California and Nevada, in the Great Basin (A watershed with no outlets), east of the Sierra Nevada mountains, Death Valley constitutes much of Death Valley National Park. It has an area of about 7,800 km2. The highest point in Death Valley National Park is Telescope Peak in the Panamint Range at 3,366m, which is the snow-covered peak featured in a number of my photos. The area frequently floods during the monsoon season although the water evaporates away leaving some amazing mineral deposits such as at the “devil’s golf course”.