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I’ve been to about 75% of Colorado in my lifetime. This is in large part because of a three-year stint as the editor of the Colorado Official State Vacation Guide, and also because of a life-long quest of mine to hike in every wilderness area in the state. Blank spots on my personal map are getting fewer and fewer, and most of them are either grasslands on the Eastern Plains or high-altitude desert canyons on the Western Slope.
The trip a few weeks ago was intended to fill out my portfolio: either some of those blank spaces, or places where I don’t have good enough images (or even digital images at all, for that matter). On top of that, my portfolio — taken as a whole — had nothing when it came to desert photography. Kind of odd, seeing that desert light is remarkable (Ansel Adams taught us all that), and the Colorado Plateau is only four hours west of Denver.
So at Colorado National Monument, I wanted to resolve that. Situated near the border with Utah, this wedge-shaped national monument has Moab-like scenery but without the crowds. We were arriving in the evening on a Saturday night in summer, and we had no problems finding a campsite. The drive into park (above) is stunning. How more people don’t know about this place is a bit of a mystery.
So as we tooled around the campsite and pitched the tent, I was optimistic about getting a few great images to add to my collection.
And yet, I needed to be a dad, too. After all, this was a family vacation, and Varenna’s normal bedtime is right at magic hour (8pm). The usual nature-photography routine of scouting the best composition and waiting for the ideal light to occur just wasn’t in the cards. This is a little girl who likes changing scenery, whether that’s the comforting motion of riding along for a hike, or just the simple act of picking her up when she’s frustrated with rolling over. Sitting still and letting the earth spin on its axis doesn’t hold a lot of interest for her.
But here is where I will brag a little bit (OK, a lot). Varenna was awesome . I think she was just delighted with the fresh air and the fact that she wasn’t still buckled into her car seat. After a quick dinner of Subway sandwiches at our campground (and a whole jar of pureed sweet potatoes for her), we found our way to the Window Rock Trail, a short jaunt through the piñon pines to a magnificent view of a large crumbling arch and the Grand Valley below (above left). Hailey art directed me here and there (“can you take a shot of that tree? It would be great to get the canyon in there, too”). From there, we watched the nearly full moon rise over Monument Canyon before the sandstone cliffs and the farm land below were cast in orange by the setting sun.
Varenna loaned us another 20 minutes to hop in the car and make a run for Independence Monument before all daylight faded, but before we even got there, a view of Upper Wedding Canyon appeared just as the sky evolved into a light pink hue (above). Rim Rock Drive — the 23-mile winding road that skirts the monument’s canyons from above — had barely enough room for me to pull over and set up the tripod, but I did my best. Then again, there was no one driving the road at this hour.
Canyons are incredibly difficult subjects because of the high-degree of contrast. Where it’s sunny, it’s very bright. Where it’s shaded, it’s very dark. So scenery tends to be blown to bits and muffled all in the same composition. But at blue hour, things were a bit more balanced, and quite a bit more subdued.
It was too dark by the time we reached Independence Monument, and our little girl was beginning to show signs of classic Baby Manic Instability before bedtime (gushing with delight one minute, cranky the next). But she was fairing well. Again, this was all a test — a trial run to see how travel with our baby would go. And as we pulled back into the campground, my art director had a great idea: “I’ll put Varenna to bed. You should go and photograph the canyons under the full moon.”