Last week I had the amazing opportunity to go on a wonderful road trip from San Francisco, down the coast and across to the Grand Canyon and back. I would not file myself under the label of photographer, but I know what I like and decided to take the chance on a fancy rental lens to see how well I could do while discovering the wild west.
I love painting landscapes, and I think I got a lot of great source material this trip. The colors were warm and vibrant. The sky was clear on most of the days, and even the days that were a bit hazy leant themselves to some wonderful atmospheric perspective.
Day 2 (uh, we got a late start on Day 1 – I have no photos): Carmel to Santa Barbara
Starting off from Pebble Beach and driving along 17 Mile Drive to Carmel admiring the rocky shores and wind blown Monterey Cypress, then driving down the coast to Big Sur. There’s a beautiful waterfall at Julia Pfeiffer beach that can’t be missed.
Day 3: Santa Barbara to Joshua Tree
Santa Barbara is a beautiful town full of lots of spanish mission style architecture and tons of sun. One of my favorite things to check out though, is the mural that’s painted on the walls of the courthouse. No photo I took will capture its entirety or magnificence, but I highly recommend checking it out. The other random highlight of Santa Barbara is the epic and ancient fig tree that resides just next to the 101 freeway. Planted in 1876, it is mighty. Per a 2010 measurement, the widest spread of the branches is 198 feet (60 m). The trunk diameter above the buttress roots is 12.5 feet. Huge.
After Santa Barbara we drove through LA (stopping for some amazing Korean BBQ in downtown first), we drove on to Palm Springs and then up to Joshua Tree just as the sun was setting. Our airbnb for the night was an amazing little “homesteader cabin” a good 6-7 miles off the main highway, off a dirt road. I got a couple night shots of the view from the porch, but it was nearly a full moon, so the stars were a little daunted by the bright light. Still, a really beautiful and serene evening.
Day 4: Joshua Tree to Sedona
Joshua Tree is a crazy place. It reminded me of a Dr. Seuss book. I also discovered that Joshua Trees are in the Yucca family. They came in so many shapes, appendage numbers, and sizes. We had seen a few of them as we traveled closer to the National Park and also throughout the rest of the Arizona/Nevada area, but there truly wasn’t the same concentration as in the Park itself. Quite stunning to see a forest of them line the road as we drove through. We caught them with a brilliant blue sky and wispy clouds that added another level of character to the landscapes.
And then there’s Sedona. We planned our entrance into the valley perfectly to catch sunset. The formations are beautiful enough in the middle of the day, but when the warm light of sunset hits the brilliant red rocks, they glow. We arrived at that night’s airbnb just as the light was prime for photos and we had a great view of the hills from the porch. After the sun set, I caught a nice shot of the moon rising in dusk light.
Day 5: Sedona to Grand Canyon and over to Kanab, UT
We woke up in Sedona and drove through town a bit to get some views of the wonderful formations. We also wandered over to the chapel that is built into the hillside. It was a pretty impressive construction. I was more amused by the view from the chapel looking down upon the gaudiest home I’ve ever seen. Yeah, check it out – you can’t miss it. I think they must have thought that by painting it red like the rocks it would blend in…
We moved on towards the Grand Canyon afterwards. It was cooling down at that point (it even snowed lightly a little bit), and we were greeted by a very overcast sky when we got there. While I was a little sad to not have the sun illuminate the striking colors and formations that the canyon makes, the diffused lighting did have a certain somber and powerful character of its own. I remarked that the whole thing just looked like a painting in some movie backlot. It’s really hard to believe it’s real even when you’re standing right in front of it.
We drove west a bit, then backtracked along the eastern side of the south rim to the “look out” which was a unique perspective – looking west you could still see the deep cavernous ridge line, but looking east, you could see the plateaus and flat land that extend beyond where the canyon gets shallower. We continued our drive going east towards Lake Powell, stopping at a reservation where they kindly let me take a few more pictures from their vantage point. We drove all the way around up into Utah and landed for the night in the adorable town called Kanab.
Day 6: Kanab to Las Vegas
Kanab is the most quaint little roadside town. Feels like it belongs on Route 66 and clearly gets frequented by people visiting the surrounding national parks. Lots of great neon and retro details throughout the town. It is considered the Little Hollywood of Utah. It definitely had a hay-day where lots of Westerns were filmed in the surrounding area – and movies of note, too. We just watched The Outlaw Josey Wales, a Clint Eastwood flick, that was filmed there to see if we recognized anything.
They have an amazing little movie museum with some sets that were used in films. It’s pretty much perfect.
We went from Kanab to Zion, only about an hour’s drive away. Zion is a beautiful canyon with more stunning rock formations. It has the longest tunnel I’ve ever driven through, carved straight through a mountain side, with only a few pockets of light streaming in as you drove through it. We hiked in the canyon at the end of the northern loop of the road which had a beautiful river running through it.
We left through the southwest entrance and headed on to Vegas for the night.
Day 7: Las Vegas to Death Valley
Being in Vegas was even more surreal than usual, having come from such natural wonders to the artificial wonder that is Vegas. We did the usual Vegas thing that night – dinner and a show, then headed out in the late morning towards Death Valley. We passed a little gas station/brothel on the way, too, on the outskirts of Area 51. Gotta love Nevada.
Death Valley was glorious. We have both decided that we’ll have to come back with more time to explore it. The colors, textures, and formations we saw were so surreal and like nothing I’d ever seen. It looked like something out of a Dalí painting. There was also a quaint little Inn tucked into the hillside that was quite literally an oasis in the middle of the desert. And then the sun was setting as we drove out, making such gorgeous colors: purple hills, golden tumbleweed brush, auburn red dirt, all against a fading blue sky. Such a treat to see. We ended our night in Lone Pine, on the Eastern foothills of the Sierra.
Day 8: Lone Pine & Alabama Hills
Lone Pine is another one of those go-to Western Film shooting locations. Not to mention a few Star Trek movies/episodes. I’ve always loved it. My family used to come up and camp in Onion Valley and surrounding areas, and my Aunt once took my brother and me up Mt. Whitney which you get a nice view of from Lone Pine. While it’s the tallest peak in the continuous US, it doesn’t look like the tallest from the valley. Fond memories, and of course, a gorgeous view. Snow still specks the peaks, and the contrast of the bright blue sky, light blue and gray mountains, with the rambling auburn Alabama hills in the forefront made for a great shot.
This was basically the end of our journey though. We decided to just drive back home via the 5, which isn’t as spectacular as what we’d just seen (unless you count the usual cow concentration camps). Or else I’ve just gotten too familiar with the drive to really notice it’s beautiful spots.